Saturday, January 29, 2011

Devised Work

A few thoughts while I struggle through my cold. Isaac asks some questions about Devised Work, and since I am primarily someone who works in the realm of "Devised Work" I'll put forward my personal answers.

Firstly, before I approach his answers, this is what I mean by "Devised Work", although I hate the term because I think it's somewhat a misnomer.

When I work with my company on a devised work, we work as such:
  • Each person works for a bit on some small moment or piece of work which they then share with the rest of the working group.
  • The company responds, and we add it to a list of available moments.
Later, we synthesize these related moments and figure out what the arc and the through-line is.

It's just a different drafting process - drafting in performance. It comes with its own weaknesses, which Isaac notes -- feeling more scattershot, feeling more uneven, etc. Those are just the working hazards, in the same way that the "traditional" writing process (another term I'm not wild about) has the danger of being too talky, of being just the playwright's voice in various heads.

I don't work in this mode because I want to "get rid of" playwrights or directors -- my devised work usually has someone in those positions. But I've noticed that when I write a play at my desk, I'm writing dialogue -- and I create a dialogue focused play. When I draft practically, in a room with performers, I get the opportunity to create a different type of work.

It also helps me draft with the ideas of plenty of people. A long time ago I realized I'm not perfect, and I don't have perfect visions of my own work in my head, and I need help from other people to create full pieces. I'm not being facetious, I've worked with directors who walk into a process knowing what they want to create from beginning to end, and they Direct the show until they have what they want. When I work, I create things in the moment, to solve problems and deliver on impulses.

Note that devised work is a different drafting process; one that requires rehearsal space and other resources. A lot of devised work companies make the mistake of conflating the drafting process with the production process; they don't leave time between the creating of something and the process of making it good -- the editing and finessing process. That, I think, is what causes Isaac to wish that the "director" or the "playwright/editor" had been more present.

To me, it would be perfectly plausible to use a devised work process to create a first "script", and then to put a traditional-style director in charge of it and say, "make this good." In the traditional-style directing process, as it was communicated to me, the director and the cast operate in a mode of trying to bring a particular intention to life in the most sharply defined way possible. No reason why you can't do that with a work that has been created in an ensemble-derived environment.

To me, a bad devised work is about equivalent to a bad playwright-written play, they just tend to have different weaknesses.
First off, do audiences care about how a play is created? Should they?
Audiences don't care how the work is made on an aesthetic level. They care about the product. However, I do think that the way that work is made has an effect on the final work. Work that is "devised" may tend to create a certain kind of product -- and it's important to select the drafting process that fits the aesthetic of the final product.

Second, what about devised work that eventually is crafted by playwrights, directors and actors in a more traditional structure? The Civilians, The Debate Society and Young Jean Lee's company all use devising processes, but the shows they produce are written, directed and acted by people in fixed roles (even if those roles overlap). Are they still devised work?

I have always thought of these companies as devised work companies. I think they use devised work processes to draft their work, and then they have a more structured and formal process for editing and creating a final product. Which is good -- that's what the should be doing, and it's why their work tends to be solid while still having the distinct flavor of devised work.

Are they devised work once actors other than the original development company take over roles? What about when other companies license the scripts and do the shows?

Well, doing a revival is always a distinct process from a new-works process in my mind. So the original play can still be described as a "devised work," but the new production is not devised; the original company devised it.

The obvious example here is the Laramie Project. It was devised (by the very man who taught me how to do devised work, as a matter of fact), but now it is performed the way straight plays are performed the world over. Invariably, when it is performed, the story of how The Laramie Project was put together is part of the show -- and in that sense, you are describing it as a devised work. But it's pretty clear that it wasn't devised by your local high school cast.


John Fogle said...

For what it's worth...the most exciting theatre I have EVER scene with by Complicite - The Three Lives of Lucy Cabrol and Street of Crocodiles - were both devised pieces. Was the devised process of these works what made them so memorable? No, but the marriage of process and technique was.

CultureFuture said...

The phrase "marriage of process and technique" is definitely the key... in the same way that form and content are only important to the degree that they support each other, so is process only important in as far as it supports the work it's creating.

I've heard many good things about Complicite! I haven't spotted them in America but hopefully they'll visit soon.

Jason E. Weber said...

I think getting hung up on the term "devised" is part of the problem here. We are hung up on how different this must be than what we know because the playwright role is compromised. However, the creation of theatre is more than just writing a script. It is the development of a whole production. Therefore, I would suggest that all theatre is "devised." Whether one person or a group created the script, or whether a person created a script and then other people made it into theatre, or whatever scenario you can suggest... it's all devised. What is actually relevant to this discourse is how the collaboration works.

We see this new working method as undefinable because we focus on the anecdotes of procedures and exercises which vary even in the "traditional" theatre. What separates this new process is the way in which the artists relate to each other.

The collaboration of all companies can been charted on a triangle whose points are made up by the following terms: Collective Collaboration, Guided Collaboration, and Specialized Collaboration. All companies use all or part of these approaches to make their work. Even if they aren't conscious of it.

COLLECTIVE COLLABORATION is an approach where all participants are equals. All participants must work together to accomplish every aspect of the production from writing the script, staging it, performing it, designing it, and physically building it.

GUIDED COLLABORATION is an approach where a single leader stands out from the collective. He or she dictates decisions about the topic of the work, the approach to the work, and the method of development. All remaining participants work together as in Collective Collaboration.

SPECIALIZED COLLABORATION is an approach where each person in the production has a specific role that they are trained for and is needed for the specific type of project at hand. These roles could include traditional roles such as playwright, director, designer as well as atypical roles such as puppet master and story researcher. The project is then broken into pieces to allow the specialist to focus solely on their area of expertise.

If you can imagine this as a triangle, you can now start to plot theatre companies and see how they compare to each other without using merely anecdotal evidence.

For more information on these new terms, you are welcome to attend my presentation at the Mid-America Theatre Conference in Minneapolis, MN on March 6th at 8:00 a.m. or read my thesis available here: