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Devising is a very fluid form of theatre. Taking inspirations from anywhere and everywhere, a devised performance can be in any form and on any topic. This style is in direct contrast to scripted theatre, where a text is laying out the plot, direction, characters and details of the final performance. Although there is freedom for a personal interpretation of the overall view and form of the piece, the rehearsals and performances are confined by what has already been decided by the playwright. But devising is unlimited, in which a company can produce a performance on any theme or topic, taking ideas from any part of life and producing something new and fresh – ‘…the precise nature of the end product [of devised theatre] is unknown. In conventional theatre, however, everyone knows the production is, for example, Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the outset.’ (Oddey, 7)
An example of a devising piece is the recent ‘Fairytale Mash-Up’ which I was involved in as an actor. For this our original stimulus was a collection of short fairytale stories, some of which were familiar and others were unknown to the group. On reading the stories we found them to be surprisingly gruesome, which was something that is not necessarily picked up when a fairytale is heard as a child, such as the butcher cutting off the girl’s feet in Red Shoes. This was an unexpected twist and was the main basis of the beginning of our idea, as we decided from the very start that the Fairy Godmother would be dead, and therefore would not make all dreams come true as is usually expected of this character. Already we had a new interpretation of a classic idea, but our own input had discovered a new alternative.
As ‘oak trees grow from small acorns’ (Greet, Why Devise) and all ideas must stem from somewhere, the actors within a devising group are responsible with feeding new ideas into the group to create more diversity within the piece. Through this an actor has the power to get what they individually want from the piece and therefore it becomes more personal for the actors. It becomes their piece in a deeper way than, for example, a Chekhov play would, as it is inspired by their own ideas and experiences. In the ‘Mash-Up’ I personally wanted something from it, having not attempted a murder mystery before and having not explored the true possibilities within comedic theatre. Devising allows us, as actors, to explore ourselves, our possibilities and our limitations. Sarah Kane believed that if something could be imagined then there was a way of reproducing it on a stage, and with this in mind an actor can explore distant memories and fantastical stories in aid of a devised performance. As every human is unique and no two people have the same experiences, a devised company has a whole variety of stimulus that is previously unseen and unexplored by a public audience. In this, the ‘not knowing’ is clear, as at the start of development of a piece nobody knows what will be their influences and stimuli, and this creates a feeling of excitement and in return provides energy for the piece. This, as a result, means inevitably every devised piece will always be original due to the fact that a different group of actors will provide different motivations, due to the contrasting relationships within the group. In the 1960s a group was formed called the People Show and their performances ‘relied on the differences and conflict between individual artists within the group, which changed with every new show’s situation, conditions and circumstances. Every show was a unique devising performance.’ (Oddey, 5-6) This company is an ideal representation of a devising company, as they are described as ‘a group of individual artists in collaboration with each other, taking risks, having a sense of unknown at the start of the devising process’ (Oddey, 6). It is this risk-taking that is important to devising, as people need to lose their inhibitions for true inspiration and new ideas to form. Having worked with members of my group before there were connections for some, but others were new relationships that had to be built during the development process. A benefit of this was that fresh eyes on an actor would see a talent within them that had maybe not been explored before, that their closer friends would have overlooked as being too obvious. In this risks were taken, not all of which were successes but by doing rehearsals we allowed the freedom and non-judgement of an idea so that even if only a tiny aspect of it was used later, we made it so that actors would not fear having ideas rejected within the group.
One of the main techniques within devising is improvisation, which in reality is the basis of most devised work. This is a spontaneous activity, and therefore allows freedom, as an actor is not tied down by any limits, there is no final destination laid out in advance and there is limited if any direction made. The actor can be in the moment, without having to concern his thoughts with the next moment: ‘Nothing is fixed and absolute, it is in flux, what will the next moment be?’ (Bentley, 78) In improvisation the next moment is not important, it is about focusing on the current and feeling free to explore in the present without fear of the future. Not all improvisation goes well, and more than often it takes more than several tries to find something worth anything, which is why continued improvisation is vital for discovering new things, because if a company always goes with the first idea they limit themselves greatly where they should be free to pick and choose from many ideas. Additionally a benefit of devised work is that even a concept that has been weeks in processing can be dropped if needed – something that is not so possible within scripted work. In our piece we swapped and changed characters as we felt needed – one member was set to be the Fairy Godmother before this was changed weeks in, but it was discovered that this actually allowed the original actor to experience more, having been able to try out more than one character until she found one that would fit with what she wanted out of the devising experience. Additionally, original characters like a reclusive genie were dropped as we felt necessary, and in early stages we were regularly swapping characters until we found an option that gave everyone the best opportunities for themselves and for the group. WE toyed with the idea of simply picking out characters from a hat then performing as them or producing still images without discussing it, but this became more complicated as some were drawn more to a certain character and struggled with more obscure options.
As time went on and the piece became more complex and structured, one group member produced poems which acted as monologues for all the different characters, so in time we found ourselves structuring scenes around these poems as more were produced. It was quite interesting combining improvisation with scripted work, as we could improvise and develop until we found a place where the poem fit, and once it was done we would improvise the end of the scene as well. This meant that we could feel sure that the scene would have a point but we would still have the freedom to play around the set information. Additionally, as all the scenes were flashbacks for various murder suspects, there was no set order for them to be in, so this also added the opportunity to play with different orders to study the flow of energy from one to another before finding the right arrangement. Oddey says how ”thinking on your feet’ allows the individual to respond to new ideas or thoughts spontaneously, to sense and react to others so that the interaction or combined operation often produces unknown or unseen fresh material. This is not to underestimate the value of or importance of group discussion, but to point out the danger of becoming preoccupied with talking’ (155) and this is definitely a significant point. In our group we found that discussion was best left until after trying out some free improvisation and even then it needed to be brief otherwise it became compressing. We gave ourselves strict time limits and this meant that there wasn’t time to talk and added concentrated energy into a moment, which often created new and exciting results.
Devising is also about exploring how common ideas and regular day-to-day things can be flipped on their head and transformed into brand new perspectives, thereby ‘challenging our preconceptions’. (DV8, Artistic Policy) Theatre’s priority is to get a message across or to make an audience feel something particular, and more than often this is done through opening their eyes to the obvious but unexpected. This is the use of the known rather than the ‘not known’ but has just as much if not more of an impact on viewers. The ‘forgotten’ and the ‘ignored’ are just as important as the ‘undiscovered’ and in fact these things make it more personal and an actor’s own memories or feelings have a real power to shape plot or characters. Additionally, using influences from outside of theatre is very important and often not considered. For Frantic Assembly ‘neither of its artistic directors has a formal background in drama, theatre or dance. In creating work, the company relies on influences that lie, for the most part, outside the realm of theatre and its regular forms and practise.’ (Frantic, …uk/p110.html) For our work we were inspired greatly by the 2001 film Shrek and used nursery rhymes for development in one scene. By looking further than common theatre techniques and looking outside the box, we found more options for variety within the piece. The physical company DV8’s ‘focus of the creative approach is on reinventing… with meaning, particularly where this has been lost through formalised techniques’ (Artistic Policy).
Another skill in devising is the use of play and re-exploring our childish minds, though ‘not pretending to play as a child, but rediscovering the intensity of focus we experience as children’ (Greet, Why Devise), as this removes inhibitions and helps to reintroduce the more fantastical creative imaginations we once had. Consequently it makes actors less fearful of bad ideas and therefore less afraid to be more outrageous and experimental. One can then ‘look beyond self-perceived limitations’ (Frantic, …uk/p106.html) and find a more energetic side, which means that physical theatre is achieved much more easily. Even closing one’s eyes makes judgement less threatening which provides opportunity for even more exploration.
In devising, the aim is to produce brand new theatre that has not been seen before. We found in our company that we often did not know what would happen next; in fact the murderer was not decided until well into the rehearsal process. It made no sense to know the end before the beginning or middle, so we did not rush this decision. Our piece was ‘not a search for knowledge, but for the unknown.’ (Barba, 5), so knowing the ending would have confined us and limited exploration, constantly distracted by the final message of the piece. Even if two companies did a performance of The Caucasian Chalk Circle for example, completely uninfluenced by each other, they would still be telling the same story. This is why for our piece we used well-known characters but then added a twist, such as Cinderella actually being an obsessive cleaner. By exploring all of our different possibilities we did discover new opportunities and new perspectives on theatre as a whole. The real discovery, however, comes at the end, when we watch it back and see what we have achieved from scratch, and finally acknowledge and notice how our own input has provided a brand new interpretation:
‘Now we have made a journey in our own home. True travellers know this experience very well: the unknown world is discovered when one returns.’ (Barba, 146)
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