6The purpose of this essay is to offer an analysis of a quotation of Alison Oddey (1994, p1) who stated: “Devising is a process of making theatre that enables a group of performers to be physical and practically creative in the sharing and shaping of an original product that directly emanates from assembling, editing, and re-shaping experiences of the world.” With reference to relevant critical material and personal insights developed over the course of this module, this essay will look into theatrical genre/form we have worked with, discussing the structure of the devising process and looking into the different drama companies and practitioners that make use of the techniques of assembling, editing and re-shaping in their devising process.Devising is a process of planning or inventing something by careful thought. In terms of drama, devising is the process of creating a theatrical performance using a range of techniques. Devising a piece of theatre can be an intensely invigorating voyage towards the advancement of a performance which is a combination of the unique abilities and imaginations of a group. In order to prepare, the group needs a good level of understanding of improvisatory skills.Improvisation relies on an actor’s characterisation skills to lead their reactions to different situations and create more natural performances. In 2017, Sarah Hemming of the Financial Times said: “Of course, there are downsides to spontaneous creativity.
For one, it’s a leap in the dark every time you buy a ticket. And then, no matter how good a show, it can’t last: it is literally here today and gone tomorrow”. The Suggestibles is an Improv Comedy group that performs scenes, sketches and songs that are inspired by suggestions made by the attending audience. Performances like this are restricted to the amount of preparation that can be made as performers have no way of predicting what their audience will suggest.Verbatim theatre focuses on incidents that have happened in real life and is created using direct quotes from people to address issues raised.
Most notably in regards to Verbatim Theatre is The Laramie Project – a documentary drama piece based on the reaction of the murder of gay student Matthew Shepard in Laramie 1998 and was pieced together by interviews with members of the town, news reports from the incident and journal entries made at the time. As stated by Michael Billington of The Guardian in 2012, “At a time when there is enormous public scepticism not only about politics but about the media, the theatre can offer a source of (relatively) uncontaminated truth. In some cases, as in the tribunal plays, that may be raw information about what was actually said at a public enquiry”. This may be the reason more and more theatre companies and practitioners are making use of Verbatim Theatre in their projects.
Autobiographical Theatre is a branch of Verbatim Theatre but consists of material form the actual lives of the performers as well as taking direct quotes from other people. In 2017, the Live Theatre in Newcastle produced ‘From The Sky To Your Hands’ – a story about asylum seekers and refugees and focusing on the experiences of Joana Geronimo who moved to Newcastle from Angola in 2003 with her son and the struggles she faced finding work as a single mother and studying to be an actress. This method of performance is something that is greatly discussed in theatre with studies looking into the therapeutic aspects of autobiographic performances, serving as a psychological healing process for traumatic events while other studies claim that autobiographic theatre is more advantageous in highlighting issues in society: “…the direct address mode frequently adopted by performers of autobiographical material enables an immediate engagement with their audience. As a consequence, audiences become witnesses to the personal narratives of the performers and are also unavoidably confronted by matters of relevance to the broader society, such as human rights, citizenship, justice, and equality.
” (Heddon, 2008, p218)There are many other drama techniques considered in the devising process such as Character-Based Theatre that studies how a character looks or acts and creates an in-depth story based on those details and Site Specific Theatre that overtly uses the properties, qualities, and meanings found at a given site, be it a landscape, a city, a building or a room. This form of theatre emphasises particular images, stories, and events that reveal the complex relationship between ourselves and our physical environment. Many of these techniques use issues as a stimulus in their devising process to help further the creation of a performance. Substance abuse, sexual violence, homophobia, racism, mental health and disability are among the most commonly addressed issues in theatre performances. Theatre companies and practitioners incorporate issues into their works in order to highlight them and encourage audiences to recognise the signs of those who are negatively impacted by these issues in the hopes of prompting a social change and eventually helping to prevent these issues from recurring. In 2016, Open Clasp performed at a unique event in the Houses of Parliament where they used theatre to humanise the issues of women who have experienced gender violence to support policy change and critical debate.The purpose of issue-based theatre is to identify and explore the issues involved with an audience in order to make it easier to recognise and talk about, to accept that these issues exist in our lives and that something needs to be done – these performances can often be the first step towards making a change.
Theatre company fanSHEN was founded in 2007 by Dan Barnard and Rachel Briscoe. Based in Newcastle, the company works nationally around the United Kingdom collaborating with many artists and creating imaginative work using unorthodox methods in their devising processes, “Sometimes what we make looks like theatre, sometimes it looks like a game or installation. Sometimes there are actors; sometimes there aren’t.
” The purpose of fanSHEN’s work is to take on global, widespread issues that seriously impact people on an everyday basis and filter them down into more comical, playful scenarios that are more comfortable to digest. In fact, one of the aims listed on the fanSHEN website states: “To create more moments of beauty, joy and meaning which challenge the idea that life is frightening. It can be better than this.
” Due to their imaginative approaches to work, the process that fanSHEN takes when devising new work varies depending on the format of performance they are working towards. For example, many of their interactive works such as ‘Disaster Party’ start off with a process including the methods of Stanislavski and Mike Alfreds – placing yourself in someone else’s shoes and generating natural reactions and movements. Other works start off using something known as the Feldenkrais Method – a method of syncing learning and movement to help practitioners to realise their full human potential. “we find it helps people ‘arrive’, become aware of themselves – and also to foster an outlook of curiosity, an approach of trying stuff out rather than striving for ‘the right answer'”. The next step is to provide each member of the creative team with a task that is set to be completed within a short period of time. This level of time pressure is used to stop people trying to make their work perfect and instead focus more on producing a piece of work that can be further developed and looked into at a second stage. These tasks are often given randomised requirements, e.g.
they have to include a certain item, a specific theme or issue, they have to be accompanied by a piece of music or a soundscape, etc. Providing these parameters serves the purpose of creators being able to keep focus on the work they are devising and avoids people being lost and not knowing where to start – the starting point is provided for them. ‘Disaster Party’ was produced by fanSHEN in 2017 and was an interactive production wherein there were no actors involved in the piece – instead the ‘audience’ became the fourteen different characters within the piece and provided with headphones through which they received instructions for their selected characters and lines of dialogue for them to speak. At several points during the performance, there were opportunities for participants to improvise their own movements and conversations based on their own characters. For the majority of the production, participants were led through a story and followed the events through their own perspective experiences of the piece. The final act of the story was left to the decision of the participants in a scenario that called upon selecting only a few characters to ‘survive’ a fatal event. There were no instructions or suggestions as to who might be left alive, the decision was purely down to participants and how they felt their characters would respond.
This performance makes very evident use of the character-based technique while, in terms of addressing issues, correlates to a very ethical dilemma of who deserves to live and who must die. While the performance greatly dramatises this scenario, it is similar medical triage situations wherein a Doctor must assess which of their patients needs attention more than others.Open Clasp is a women’s theatre company based in the North East of England and creates works that help towards making personal, social and political changes in the world, especially where women are concerned.
Not only limiting their work to theatres, Open Clasp works with communities in schools and prisons using workshops and theatrical techniques to engage with members of the community and create pieces based on the stories they hear. With their motto “Changing the world. One play at a time”, Open Clasp aims to engage their audiences by delivering powerful messages in the hopes of encouraging them to become immersed in the lives of women and create an environment for debate in the issues that are raised.
The devising process for Open Clasp includes a lot of Verbatim techniques. Interviewing women who are greatly impacted by various aspects of society. ‘The Space Between Us’ was a dramatised piece of work produced by Open Clasp that addressed asylum seekers and refugees and was informed by 116 women from various ethnic and international backgrounds, some who living in fear of deportation and seeking refuge on sites. ‘Key Change’ was devised with women in prison, communicating their lives and experiences that led them to be imprisoned, directed towards an audience within male prisons.
‘Rattle Snake’ is one of the companies current projects and tells the story of two women who both suffered domestic abuse at the hands of one man. This project was put together based on real life stories of women who have been through coercive controlling domestic abuse and has been used in the past to train frontline officers to recognise signs of sexual and domestic violence and better deal with it – achieving one of the companies goals of making a difference to the world for women. As well as interviewing people from different backgrounds, Open Clasp performances use another technique to create their stories to add to the research conducted. Known as ‘Role on the Wall’, the process includes creating a character and adding facts and details to them such as what they look like, how they act, where they live, where they work, their given circumstances, significant relationships, etc. and build a story around this character. This is another example of character-based theatre and also incorporates improvisation techniques in regards to the creation of the character – there is not a prepared list of details to choose from, it all comes from impulse.Complicité is an international touring theatre company, based in London. Many of the works produced by Complicité have been brought together by creative artists and directors all over the world and conduct their devising process as a large group to form their pieces.
The explorative approach taken by Complicité has allowed them to become well known for their “distinctive, visually rich stage language, which layers physically beautiful performances and tightly choreographed ensemble work with innovative lighting, sound and video design.”Complicité’s devising process for several of their productions has derived from adaptations and revivals of classic texts but they also provide a detailed guide on how best to approach the devising process. Their first step is establishing roles within a group, assessing strengths and weaknesses of all those contributing to the work, outlining tasks that need to be completed and having a leader who assigns these tasks to people in the group. The next step is to consider the creative environment and to encourage the creation of visual materials such as paintings and sketches that may help influence the overlook aesthetic of a theatre piece. Reading various books and journal entries can also help gather the historical or factual information required when approaching themes and issues included within a piece – alongside visual aids, devising a theatre piece is made easier. Complicité states that any written material should be read out loud to others in the group to culminate ideas and start developing a production that can be worked on. In 2015, Simon McBurney directed and performed in ‘The Encounter’, a piece of theatre inspired by ‘Amazon Beaming’ by Petru Popescu where Simon McBurney portrayed the character of Loren McIntyre as he made an account of his exploration through the Amazon, being kidnapped and claiming to communicate telepathically with the Mayoruna tribe. This process of using earlier adaptations as a stimulus for devising theatre pieces is something Complicité does quite often.
In 2003, Simon McBurney directed ‘The Elephant Vanishes’, a stageplay adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short stories about a fictional fantasy world lurking beneath the surface of Tokyo. This production was performed in Japan by an all-Japanese cast. As well as theatre adaptations, Complicité has also devised productions using Verbatim as well. In 2007, Simon McBurney directed ‘A Disappearing Number’ which told the true story of Professor GH Hardy and his work with self-taught Chennai mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. In 2016, Kirsty Housley directed ‘A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer’ that looked into the real lives of cancer patients behind all the banners and campaigns, using real stories from patients and scientists to devise this piece – another example of Complicité making use of Verbatim Theatre.Over the course of this analytical essay, it is clear to see that the devising process for several theatre companies involves the collaboration of many creative artists and professionals, working together in groups to create pieces of theatrical work.
In the cases explored above, the most common techniques used in the devising process include Verbatim Theatre and Character-Based Theatre that generate stories based on real life experiences and involve direct quotations and interviews with real people to add accurate contextual information to performances and productions. As in Alison Oddey’s quotation, she stated that the aspects of devised work (assembling, editing and re-shaping) branches out from experiences of the world which is exactly what the theatre companies in this essay have done. To reiterate Mike Shepherds thoughts on theatre – it’s purpose is to actively engage an audience and encourage them to become immersed in the themes and issues addressed within a performance. Issue-based performances are created with the intention of highlighting aspects of society that are have negative impacts on people and need to change. By accepting that something needs to be done, audiences take the first step in making those changes possible while simultaneously encouraging others to attend performances of issue-based theatre productions. While some theatre companies like fanSHEN try to deliver the message in a comical and playful manner that is more comfortable for its audience, there are some that attack issues aggressively to ensure that the point is made that things need to change, but even Open Clasp with its powerful message delivery is known to incorporate comedic humour in their performances. This goes to show that research into topics for any devised piece is of vital importance, especially when dealing with issues that affect a large percentage of people but it may also be important to keep in mind that when attempting to maintain audience engagement, it is best to avoid bombardment of facts and quotes, to take the details and information gathered and plant it within a layer of storytelling.