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January 29, 2011

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Ben

it's the reality television of theater. let's get rid of the writer!

it's for the directors who can't actually write, but want to make a "play."

and rarely this turns out well (the civilians), but mostly this turns out to be a great deal more about process than about product.

I tend to think of it differently when the process is helmed by a writer. I wouldn't call Cloud Nine devised work, because there's a driving creative force that writes a story. Story.

Generally though it's directors leading this sort of endeavor, which leads to an overstuffed pastiche. "oh i love your movement piece, Pierre." "Oh, i love your song, Mary, we've got to use it." "and Davy, you should definitely read that letter of your grandfather's you found, it totally captures oppressive American *****ism."

Jack Worthing

CLOUD NINE isn't devised. God help me for presuming but I think Caryl and Max would be appalled at the idea. No Joint Stock play was devised; the workshop actors and director were tools for the writer's research. Caryl rightly says she couldn't have written CLOUD NINE (or TOP GIRLS, LIGHT SHINING... etc.) without the workshops, but the point is she could write whatever she wanted and Max would do it. The company's socialism only went so far. Work that begins with the word, and story, and a single person with artistic control putting words on a page because they have an urgent story to tell, tends to last longer than work created other ways. Steve Cosson of The Civilians learnt his trade from Les Waters, who was Max's assistant at Joint Stock. He's adapted the method well.

99

The thing that I can't get out of my mind is this: when we talk about "devised theatre," we ONLY talk about process and not at all about outcomes. But what the "devised" companies seem to have in common is the end result. Or, rather, what seems to be most different from "traditional" playwriting is the end result. And how they're treated.

I like this phrase of Jack's: the other artists were tools for the writer's research. Which sounds, well, kind of cold. But is kind of accurate. Here's the thing: it's functionally accurate for most devised companies, too. As much as the rhetoric is about democracy and communal creation, when the process is described, it seems start with one artist's idea or question and then everyone contributes, but on the basis of that question or idea. It's just that we don't call that one artist a "playwright."

It's in the end result, though, it seems to me, that we see what "devised theatre" is or is expected to be. If a devised theatre company turns out Proof or The Odd Couple, no matter what the process is, I don't think anyone would call that devised theatre. There's an expectation of a certain kind of work that comes out at the other end.

If I were to describe my ideal process for play creation, it would line up pretty well with how devised work is described: I'd love to work with a director and a company of actors from page one, having extra bodies to do research and bounce ideas off of, add designers early, the whole nine. And even better, I'd love to have the entire process from concept to production given support by theatres with a guaranteed production at the other end. Who wouldn't love that?

isaac

So it seems. 99, that what you're highlighting here is that perhaps the experimental producing/presenting wing of the theatre economy is on to something about how plays should be made and produced, but the problem is you have to have a certain aesthetic in order to access it? Is that what you're saying?

Jack, I don't disagree with you. But there are companies whose processes aren't all that different from Joint Stock's that get placed under the rubric of devised work. I'm raising that idea to see what the limits of our definitions are. (Oh and btw: anyone following this discussion interested in Joint Stock would do well to get the Joint Stock Book from Amazon UK. It's out of print, but worth the money.)

malachy walsh

I don't know the answers to all those questions, but every year at Columbia - for at least the last 10 years - 1st year grad students put on a show that is "devised" under most of the conditions you describe over a weekend.

Obviously, it wasn't new when it was started either.

I'd think MAD FOREST is closer to "devised" than CLOUD NINE.

99

Isaac- That is definitely a part of what I'm talking about. The end result does seem to matter to how a work gets defined, but it doesn't factor into the conversation about how that work happens. Outside of a certain aesthetic, you don't really get to call your work (or your company) "devised." But under the rubric of devised work, there are a lot of disparate approaches and techniques and artists who work in different ways. I don't know we can clearly discuss what makes this work happen without talking about aesthetic or style.

Jack Worthing

Let's discuss 'devised' being a dirty word. Agreeing with 99 I'd certainly love to work under Joint Stock-ish conditions but my writing isn't weird enough - and my will is not malleable enough - for the people who are open to non-traditional ways of working. Indeed there's a split: the trad legit play vs. the devised work where the author is another voice in a mob people who want to feel like authors, not least the auteur director who can't write a sentence. Well, fine. But if I dare drag my feet and claim it's MY play in the end I'm accused of not being collaborative. To be clear, I'm not Albee and my work owes a lot to actors and directors. But part of being a professional is knowing what to leave out, and a single ruthless vision is better than 53 half-baked ones. Joint Stock was a benevolent dictatorship, with the actors feeling a deep connection to the work but the actual ownership residing somewhere else. If my company worked in a Joint Stock style and got called 'devised' I would never, ever, ever stand for it because the word is, rightly or not, associated with so much unformed, pseudo-intellectual rubbish.

99

I don't see it so much as dirty word, but as a misleading one (or at worst, sort of a weasel word). I very much agree with you, Jack. In fact, I'd go so far as to say most playwrights trained after the '80s are largely the same; I don't think I've ever met a playwright who acted like a new play was somehow unchangeable or inviolable by the dirty hands of actors or a director. We're all taught to collaborate and work together at this point. So I keep coming back to why does this particular form of collaboration get a different term and a special kind of designation on the basis of process, and NOT content. Because it strikes me that (value judgments aside), it's the content and style that distinguish it.

Jacob Zimmer

Too me, as someone often involved in "devised work" - it's a word that has recurring popularity (early 90s onward) because it takes a whole bunch of messy fluctuating practices and puts a Teachable label to it. It also has been important in talking to presenters and funders about why everyone needs to be around through out the making process. Like any of the labels we put to work it's deeply limited in use.
I don't think the audience care - except in the ways that it can add a degree of investment and presence from the performers that is different than "hired guns" (another deeply flawed label.) There's terrible work under the label and great work. Not unlike any other label.

99

As I've thought more and more about it (and all of the comments here have been great food for thought), another part of my issue with the term "devised theatre" is that it purports to separate out this kind of theatre based on its creation, not its outcome. It strikes me as an odd place to place the label. The Civilians do journalistic work. The Wooster Group does multimedia blending of found texts. Young Jean Lee writes and directs plays that she develops with actors. Shouldn't the end result be the determinant of what kind of theatre?

Karl Miller

Mary Zimmerman, anyone?

http://wamu.org/programs/mc/10/12/trans-17-11-39473.php

I think anything that gets us away from the creation of literature is a good thing. Of all the refugees who take up home in the theatre (failed psychologists, failed tyrants, etc.), the English Department refugees have done more to cripple the evolution of theatre, especially in America. Call it devised work for want of a better phrase, but I think should be encouraged because it gets us away from the creation of scripts and back to the creation of live events.

I know I sound crude here, but Ben's snarky take really put me off. If I've learned anything from 2 years of StageGrade profiling, it's that we're still stuck viewing theatre through two distinct critical filters: 1) the text and 2) ... everything else. I rarely know, after reading a review, if it's a good play. At best I know whether or not I should buy a copy at Barnes and Noble.

So anything that confounds our sense of ownership or authorship of the theatrical event is a good thing. It prevents an easy exit for critics and audience members because devised work doesn't let us confine the virtues or shortcomings to a text. What might be troubling or challenging about a piece can no longer be isolated as the failings (or genius) of one person's world-view. I always thought theatre was supposed to work that way, even when it wasn't "devised," but that's rarely the case these days.

Anywho, people who've read my rantings know that this is my attitude, so all I can add to the discussion here is a plea for more of whateverthefuck "devised work" may be. Seems we keep talking about the death of theatre at the hand of film, tv, video games, etc, but we forget that the death of theatre started much earlier ... with the printing press.

99

Karl- I hear your frustrations, but they seem to be about the culture outside of the work. And I definitely would love to see our critical filters shifted to reflect the collaborative nature of ALL theatrical work. But I'd also like to see the folks who work in alternative ways lose some of the "we don't have playwrights" triumphalism. They still have playwrights; they just call them different names and emphasize the collaboration. Every play is a collaboration.

Don't even get me started on the state of theatre criticism in this country. That's another post all in itself.

Karl Miller

Agreed 99!

I like the way the question here was posed, though: wtf is "devised work"? Even talking about it kinda screws up our normal vocabulary as we scramble for examples and citations. I immediately jumped to a familiar theme in my bloggy ideas about theatre. What I like about the discussion and the question that started it is that "devised work" is pretty damn near close to what I would hope theatre would be -- it's also to what I think it needs to be (but that's a whole other Death of Theatre post, too). Mostly though, I just wanted to counter the idea that devised work is the "realty tv" of theatre. If anything, it's an overdue enhancement of the medium, not a degeneration of it.

Jason E. Weber

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: http://independent.academia.edu/JasonEWeber/Papers/400293/Creating_Together_Defining_Approaches_to_Collaboratively-Generated_Devised_Theater

Ben

"Anything that gets us away from the creation of literature is a good thing."

Blasphemy, Karl.

I think this underlies a lot of how I feel about "devised work." I've heard directors of these companies say stuff like this before. And look, I can enjoy the sonny and cher variety hour with a nice dose of liberal masochism, as much as the next guy. really.
but, what I really want, is great literature--characters, story--brought to life on stage.

I've had some very very enjoyable evenings taking in "devised work." I've laughed! I've cried! I've gone home thinking!

BUT! I've never seen a great story.

Jack Worthing

No self-respecting playwright save Albee believes he's creating literature. Either he doesn't really believe it and he likes to be contrary or his genius trumps all. That hack Noah Haidle believes it and his empty, hermetic little plays bear that out; but I didn't include him because nothing about him or his work is serious. Who else? No one that I know. Pinter didn't believe it, August Wilson didn't, Tennessee Williams (a great prose writer) didn't, not even Stoppard believes it. Certainly no one younger. If you don't know what actors are can do and what works in real time, that's your problem and you'd damn well learn. I admit the desire for this can be lacking. Deeply flawed, unfinished plays often become 'canvases' for directors trying to 'fix' them, when the playwright has taken insufficient responsibility for what's on stage. Plays by talented people come off as literature not because the author has Faber & Faber in mind, but because the submitted an unfinished play and the collaboration became unbalanced. The director was too deferent. Or in the name of collaboration she asked for a messy draft to 'explode' in rehearsal. And the playwright didn't know when to say yes. Or no. Etc. Every playwright I know acknowledges they're creating a live event but they must own everything. They must understand everything. When they don't, they fall back on other modes of thinking. Anything that 'confounds our sense of ownership' is NOT necessarily a good thing, because the sense of ownership is confounded enough already.

99

Right on, Jack. Right on.

Ben

When did literature become a dirty word? Since when are literature and actable dramatic writing mutually exclusive? I think this probably comes down to us defining literature differently, Jack, because I agree with all the points you make in the 2nd half of your last post.

I think playwrights need to stand against the notion that all we do is "create scripts," that we're somehow not working towards creating a live event, as Karl implies.

isaac

That's an interesting point, Ben, that I'll just turn around into a question:

How are you defining literature here?

Jack Worthing

I don't believe they're mutually exclusive either. My definition was based on the absurd idea that a play on the page is a complete experience. Some plays achieve the condition of literature because the words on the page, how they're constructed and arranged, is great art itself. But writing plays is the art of synthesis, and the whole is always more important than the sum of its parts. A play eventually becomes treated as literature because it's a great live experience *first*. Its literary value can't be separated from that. And let's face it: if it's taught in school, it's much to do with style. It's much easier to read STREETCAR than Suzan-Lori Parks. At their best, Tennessee's stage directions are as good as any novel in the world, and students will get a lot of deconstructing how he makes a sentence. But all that florid stuff -- indicating who *used to* live at the Pollitt plantation, for God's sake! -- has a three dimensional purpose. You ignore it at your peril. They indicate what's not there.

karl miller

(NOTE: The following comment is written by Karl Miller but due to technical problems is actually being posted by Isaac, using Karl's name)

Well ... yeah, Jack, the greats you mention are great precisely because they already know this. No argument there. I'm not banishing playwrights, people; I'm just excited by anything that shakes up the script-centric order of things. I know that aggravates playwrights who already feel bound by too many competing forces in production. Of course rehearsals and development need balance if collaboration is going to mean anything besides taking turns. And I would hope that all playwrights know how to write words for the human body, not just the human eye. That's incredibly rare, in my experience, so I'm happy to hear that every playwright you know already knows this. But when I wrote of "confounding our sense of ownership" I was writing from the perspective of an audience member and a critic. Perhaps, as 99 suggested, that's a problem with criticism today, not playwrights.

Again, I'm sorry for freighting this discussion with my knee-jerk death-of-theatre argument. That contention is probably best vented elsewhere, but it's why I speak of authorship and ownership the way I do.

To bring us back to the original thread, then: "devised work" doesn't have to come at the expense of character and narrative, Ben, but I maintain that devised work, even at its sloppiest, is closer to the ecstatic core of live theatre than literature. Certainly a theatrical production (even a "devised" one like the Zimmerman Candide I cited earlier) can include literature but it sounds like we all agree that literature is never the goal.

And now that "WTF is Devised Work?" has given way to "WTF is Literature?" ...

The distinction I've made between the two here is not meant to exclude plays, like Tennessee’s, that also happen to read well. (Though I confess I don't know how to read Shakespeare without speaking him.) And Jack’s point about plays-becoming-literature through their enduring re-production is crucial – that sums up the order of rank quite well. My only point was that devised work shows us how incidental a script really is at the end of the day – whether it’s the script we start with or the script we end up with. Even at their best, they are never the “complete experience” because theatre requires interaction in meatspace that can never be completely represented in dialogue and stage direction. (Every review should contain the disclaimer “you had to BE there.”) Again, this is not to say that playwrights can’t write dialogue and stage direction with this in mind – they had better. In a sense, the best playwrights do their own “devising” and have nothing to fear from “devised work” that flowers without them.

Jack mentioned Albee, with whom we must couple Mamet on this point. I guess I’ve just encountered more Albee/Mamets than I have Tennessee’s. Forgive me if that makes me unduly hostile to playwrights in general.

Ben

My reaction as far as "literature" goes, Isaac, was more to Karl's dismissal of plays written by playwrights, which is what I took his definition of literature to be. His saying there are "scripts" and then there are "live events."

Of course plays are meant to be performed and only reach their true potential when performed. I wholeheartedly agree, Karl, that theater requires "meatspace." (nice.)

But I don't buy the notion that "devised work" is closer to the ecstatic core of live theater than plays written by a playwright. I do agree that liveness is incredibly important, but if you've got great actors, you can bring great stories ("scripts," as you would say) to life.

The notion that "a script is incidental" is preposterous to me. "oh it's just the text, don't sweat it. we can do movement experiments for three weeks, then add in the words at the dress. because they're just words after all. just empty little words."

But "a script" or "a text," is not just words. It's character and story and theme and relationship and the set and the costumes and action and movement and the entire world.

This is in no way meant to diminish the role of the actor. (or anyone else for that matter. of course it's a collaboration!) It's theater! The live actor is what it's about! Live actors' ecstatic cores! I in no way mean to denigrate actors.

What it comes down to for me is that as much as I can appreciate "devised work," and really find it enjoyable, entertaining and edifying, I don't think "devised work" will ever bring us The Homecoming or Far Away or Ruined or Joe Turner's Come and Gone or Three Tall Women or Six Degrees of Separation or The Beauty Queen of Leenane or Mud or Conduct of Life or Noises Off . . .

usually actors are with me on this because they're hungry to play great roles and not just roll around on the floor. usually it's the directors who love "exploring" that I'm at odds with over this sort of thing.

Jack Worthing

What Ben said.

Karl Miller

Absolutely right. Taken to an extreme, devised work becomes a 100-monkeys-typing-Hamlet experiment. And last I checked that has yet to work out.

Isaac asks WTF is devised work, but I think he answers his own question quite well by simply saying it's work that "doesn't have a written script as a starting point." Since we seem to agree that a written script is not the ending point either, the possibilities for “WTF is the Script” expands when we consider devised work as an alternative. And as someone who reads far too much theatre criticism, I jumped at the possibilities there because, as far as I can tell, theatre criticism has become literary criticism by another name.

Playwriting is the hardest motherfucking way to put pen to paper, hands down. The playwright has to become invisible if suspension of disbelief is going to take hold (part of that elusive "synthesis" Jack described earlier). They have to be equal parts actor, designer, choreographer, architect ... but also musician, painter, sculptor, philosopher, psychologist, judge. If devised work excites me, it's because it starts with this invisibility and has the potential to invigorate theatre criticism, which, as I say, has collapsed into a predictable and fruitless tiff between two writers.

I've come to rank productions (scripted or not) according to how they exploit the shared space of the theatre. That "empty space" is still the defining attribute of our medium -- the more we engage with it, the better. What have the collected works of Donald Margulies done to fill that space? With the possible exception of "Lieutenant of Inishmore," what have the collected works of that self-proclaimed theatre-hater Martin McDonagh done to fill that space? If Devised Work leaves Ben feeling tickled, but not fulfilled, then perhaps you’ll understand why plays so often leave me feeling fulfilled but puzzled as to why I had to spend $70 to sit in a room with strangers to receive it.

I hate the inadequacies of development readings as much as any playwright out there, but I hate them because they’ve also proven surprisingly adequate to many of the scripts at hand: some talking, some direct address, some action described by an african-american stage-direction reader with a lovely voice. Story, character, theme, yes, yes, yes but no space, no reason to fill this particular space with content that could be communicated better in print, on film, or television. Many’s the time I’ve wanted to shout “PLEASE roll on the floor for a few hours!”

Again, this is just my weary experience with new playwriting and contemporary criticism and I don't mean to damn either enterprise. But devised work, for all its excesses, often does a great job embracing the space first, so I’m partial to that approach. I’m also hopeful that its ascendency proves to be something more than a fad like the “happenings” of the 60s.

In conclusion, I concede that playwriting is not mere script-making so long as Ben can acknowledge that devised work is not merely “reality tv for theatre.”

Isaac, 99, Ben, Jack – you’ve all helped me refine what I think about (and mean by) literature, so thank you! I hope we can all return to this discussion the next time we hit upon that perennial Death of Theatre meme, too.

Joe Salvatore

Great conversation on this topic. Thanks for putting it out there for debate. I've been "devising" a piece with actors over the past two weeks, and we're using a variety of methods to get to a performance script, none of which involve rolling around on the floor. Although I know that many people love that as a point of departure. We're using improvisations that we record and transcribe, and then I shape that text into something that has more dramatic tension and/or necessary information and action. Just posted about some details of our process today, so it's helpful to read all of this commentary.

And just to weigh in on Churchill, I often think more about her play Vinegar Tom as a devised piece, at least based on how the process is described in a collection of her plays that I own.

Thanks again for the dialogue!

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