Earlier, I wrote a little missive about Devised Work in response to questions from Isaac. This weekend, I was at a new little playwright's circle with some fellow company members and some other peers.
My co-creator, Ben, decided to share something that wasn't a "play" he was writing, but rather one of a series of short stories that he is writing to devise a production from later.
One of the other playwrights, who had studied in the Strasberg method of drama and teaches playwrighting, asked the question: "What are you trying to do with devised work? What's the point?"
It took us a little bit to unpack the question, and it was like building a new common language between people who have experience in devised work and people who don't. Here were the questions inside of it.
WHAT'S THE PRODUCT OF DEVISED WORK?
(DEVISED vs. EXPERIMENTAL)
The question above comes from a conflation of "Devised" work and "Experimental" work.
Devising work is not the same as making "experimental" work; devised work can be "experimental", or it can be not. I'm putting "experimental" in quotation marks because that's a whole other kettle of chaos; I'm not going to touch that definition here.
Devising work is, as I said before, a process. You could create a devised work that comes out thoroughly main-stream. For instance, I don't think that there's anything "experimental" about The Laramie Project. But I know that it came out of a devised process -- in fact, the process of devising it is included in the content of the final piece.
So we can't say what the product of devised work is, because not all devised processes are the same and they're really just tools to an end.
WHAT'S THE POINT OF DEVISED WORK?
(Devised vs. Non-Narrative)
The question was really posed as, "If you want to paint an image in the stage, Why don't you just paint?" and "If you're writing a short story to adapt devised work from, why don't you just write short stories?"
To the script writer that we were talking to, theater is dialogue between characters; how the characters interact over space and time, and how they communicate with each other, is the core of theater.
To the devised work writer, theater is a venue for exploring an idea using physical bodies in space. The thing that makes theater "theater" is the live body. For him, dialogue between characters isn't enough to require theater; you could just watch the same action unfold on the TV screen or on a web series.
The devised work writer took the question "Why don't you just paint" and reworded it as "What requires my presence?" The question that you should ask when you want to make a work of theater is, "What about this theater piece requires my physical presence at a theater?"
I can't understate how huge a question this is. If you're expecting someone to get off their couch, get dressed reasonably nicely, go out in the 28 degree weather or the 95 degree weather or whatever to be somewhere promptly at 7:30 to stand in line to pay $15 or $25 or $200, the question you need to ask is "Why do I have to be here? Why can't it come to me?"
To take an arbitrary example, Cirque du Soleil answers that question. Seeing it lives means that there are no tricks; you can evaluate for yourself whether they do the amazing things with the human body that they purport to. Cirque due Soleil, at the very least, is about the amazing potential of the human body.
Does a David Mamet play really require your physical presence?
WHAT DOES A WRITER DO FOR DEVISED WORK?
(Script-as-blueprint vs. Script-as-fuel)
The classical view of the playwright to the text is to try and create a 1:1 blueprint of what the show should be like. Perhaps the greatest example of this is Beckett, whose estate now rigidly enforces that 1:1 blueprint to the extent of denying anyone the right to do anything different.
Usually, however, the playwright tries to create a sense of the production: what bodies will be where, how they will move, what they will say and in what order.
When this question came up, I realized that I hadn't worked with a writer in a devised work scenario -- I tend to write from dead writers, existing work that is static. I am now interested to work with writers who are interested in writing for devised work.
Our current play, though (details coming realllllllly soon!) does have a writer in a devised scenario. And Ben himself writes for his devised work -- he does devised work based on his writing.
The idea for the writing, though, is not to create a blueprint; the short story that he read was thoroughly unstageable -- at least, if you tried to adapt it 1:1. You could argue that The Sound and The Fury is thoroughly unstageable as well. But that's if you're trying to adapt it 1:1; when Elevator Repair Service tackled it, they found a way.
The writer for devised work is trying to create artifacts which are compelling and useful spring-boards to create work from. Sometimes the unstageability is precisely what the theatermakers need to make work that is original and engaging; sometimes if the playwright solves all the problems ahead of time, it reduces the opportunities for amazement.
(I've been watching a lot of Mythbusters lately; the reason their show is compelling is because you get to watch them struggle to take things that seem impossible and convert them by force into the possible -- e.g. creating a working hovercraft out of leafblowers)
ISN'T THIS FANTASY/DON'T YOU WANT PEOPLE TO SEE IT?
(Industry vs. Art)
The last point was the most sobering. The person who was questioning us related it back to the playwrighting class they teach, and said, "Someone came in with a piece that was written entirely in images, and I said to them, 'I know that this is something you feel strongly about, but I'm also really familiar with literary departments and what will go up in theaters, and this won't.' As a teacher, should I be fostering the sorts of things that won't go anywhere?"
Ben responded that the teacher should be teaching the students about the sort of world that would produce that sort of work (Ontological, Dixon Place, etc.). I mentioned that that's why we're founding companies, to try and create the places that would produce that sort of work.
But I could tell that the old canard was there that "nobody" would see it; "nobody" being, at least for my last show, around 500 people, which is not necessarily my wildest dreams but is actually 500 somebodies. Furthermore, they're 500 people who I got to shake hands with, each of them. Well, personally greeted (people are weird about shaking hands with strangers).