By Isaac Butler
99 and I were talking about having this conversation on Parabasis about Devised Work and I thought I'd get the ball rolling.
For those of you who read this site who aren't big into theatre... Devised Work is kind of hot right now, but it's also not especially well defined, because it seems to be both a method of constructing theatre and an aesthetic that work created through that method tends to adhere to. As a method, it's basically a play that is created without a written script as a starting point. Generally, collaborators (who may be any mix of writers, actors, directors and designers) begin from some kind of starting point-- a title, a found text or film, a line of inquiry-- and from that they generate a play.
That work tends to adhere to certain aesthetics of experimental theatre. It tends to be deliberately messy in its narrative structure and/or stuffed the gills with thematic content. There's frequently post-modern dance breaks in it. Video work if often integrated. It may be missing some of the components of traditional drama (such as characters, or plot, or words).
There's a number of reasons why it's worth asking this question about devised work as a process vs. devised work as an aesthetic and inquiring deeper into it as a field, now that it's kind of ascendant. First off, do audiences care about how a play is created? Should they?
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? 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?
If a playwright writes a play for a specific group of actors, and then meets with those actors and discusses the play with them and with a director and then does rewrites and then mounts the play with that cast and that director... is it a devised work? Does it become a devised work if they call themselves a company and get their 501(c)3 status?
Is Cloud Nine a piece of devised theatre?
I ask these questions because it seems to me that what is most exciting about devised work is, in fact, what is oldest about it. It represents a stealthy way to reintroduce to our theatremaking system a very traditional method for making plays wherein roles are written with particular performers in mind who also go on to actually play those roles instead of being replaced for someone who used to be on Charles In Charge or whatever and may also participate in the research and development of the material. And if theaters want to embrace that method of making plays instead of the standard deal they've gotten going on right now that most people insist isn't working, then I think that's great.
What I've noticed in most of the work that openly embraces the label "devised work" is that I frequently end up wishing it had whichever staff member they've eschewed (generally either a director or a single person tasked with writing/assembling/structuring the text). And that a lot of work I've seen that embraces the label devised or company created work makes work they call final products that really should be called development workshops. And that the more focused on talking about how awesome their process is, the more likely it is that that process is being used to justify shoddy work. This isn't always true, of course. But it often is.
And I notice that, depending on what your definition of a devised piece is, all sorts of work can fall into it. The Civilians aren't called a devising company, but they have a research process and the first productions of the plays they write generally feature the people involved in that research process in the roles they've researched etc.
I'm just wondering if the term has meaning or at the end of the day is simply something that a group of artistic collaborators adopt so that they won't be fucked with by theaters. And again, I go back to audiences. Does this term have any value for audiences? Or is it so elastic that it just kinda means "it's going to be weird?"
UPDATE: Guy Yedwab takes a crack at answering some of the questions above. Check it out!