The Politics Of Cultural Production In Theater (Or, Devise This!), Part I

The other day I was in conversation with a director I had never met before. She was describing a project she was developing and she already knew what the end product was going to be: an issue-oriented multi-character solo show combining the writer/performer’s original first-person text with interviews conducted in a community. The director didn’t know my background and so took great pains to insure that I understood that they didn’t have a script yet, that what they were making was devised theater, not that other, regular kind of theater. That was the moment I knew something I had long suspected – nobody knows what anyone else is talking about when he or she uses the word “devised”.

“Devised” seems to have recently become a catchall buzzword meant to imply almost any kind of theater that seeks to differentiate itself from “the mainstream”. The term has been widely adopted by traditional theater makers and institutions with very little sense of its origin, meaning or implications. Under the best of circumstances the term is well-intentioned shorthand, a signifier for young literary managers held captive within the moldering walls of TCG-style Regional American Theaters to represent new work to their aesthetically conservative, culturally provincial, cautious, timid and aging artistic directors. At worst the term is a sham, a marketing tool for audiences and funding initiatives alike to create the appearance of innovation and transformation while reinforcing the existing power structures of cultural production. It is an appropriation of the language of the new, absent the means to enact meaningful systemic change.

At a moment when theater in America is so desperately in need of real change, it is troubling that passionate, well-meaning people naively employ the signifiers of experimentalism while failing to assimilate the lessons found in this rich lineage. Just calling something devised, ensemble, collaborative, immersive or site specific doesn’t actually make it so. One fears that large, well-funded institutions are using these terms – often interchangeably – in much the same way that they tend to co-opt the language of “social practice” to embark on “community engagement” initiatives without actually adopting the best practices of the discipline. In light of this, it seems like an appropriate moment to define terms and endeavor to provide clarity.

Since “devised” is a term of British origin, I began by reaching out to my friend and Culturebot contributor Avia Moore who earned an MA in Devised Theatre from Dartington College of Arts in Devon, England. After a long chat, she graciously reached out to her mentor, Dr. David Williams, who sent along the following notes on devising, saying “I wrote them a while ago, maybe 2005 – they emerged from a sense of an ethos at Dartington, the project of devising as part of trying to live creatively.”

DEVISED THEATRE seeks to draw upon the facilities and energies of particular groups in particular contexts to create forms and materials. Personnel and context constitute one of the primary starting points; these are active raw materials and triggers. These people, this place, this time: what are the processes, materials and forms they produce?

COLLABORATION

Devised theatre is concerned with the complex negotiations and possibilities of collaboration and ensemble work: micro social models of interactivity, locating roles, functions within a group, working languages, sites for exploration, methodologies etc.

THE PERFORMER

In devised theatre, the performer is conceived as a multi-functional ‘artist maker’, thinking through performance. In devised theatre, materials arise out of the individuals making up a particular group. What are each person’s particular abilities, facilities, fascinations, difficulties, etc.? In what ways can the performers themselves be enabled to ‘flare into appearance’? What are the relations between individual and group? (All of this has implications for how we might consider ‘acting’).

TECHNIQUES

Devised theatre emphasises generative techniques: improvisation, task work, writing, scores etc. It draws on a range of historical and existing models (e.g. avant-garde movements of the 20th century, physical theatre, site-based and environmental art, dance theatre, ‘visual theatre’, live art, digital/new media art forms, installation), as well as the possible, the invented, the hybrid. The use of a wide range of materials (textual, visual, auditory, spatial, sensory, technological) and disciplinary discourses (ethnography, archaeology, psychoanalysis, history, geography etc) serve to widen the notion of what can be creative ‘grist for the mill’. It also emphasises praxis: the ongoing and dynamic connection/dialogue between theory and practice.

COMPOSITION

Composition: starting-points > generation of basic material > sifting/working the material > composing larger structures > arrangement in performance context: i.e. ground-up decision-making processes in terms of forms, with reference to aesthetic, social, political frames of reference, and wider contexts of art making in an expanded field of contemporary performance practices. What are the implications of space, time, narratives, imagery, spectators etc. in terms of these materials this group this context? All work arises from particular personnel, contexts, and present concerns.

REFLEXIVITY

Devised theatre constantly calls ‘theatre’ and its own processes/practices/ representations/assumptions into question. Reflection upon ongoing process and its decisions as part of the making process itself: a self-reflexive theatre. This is the heart of the notion of ‘thinking through performance’, i.e. performance and its processes as sites for ‘the dance of thought-in-action’ (Barba).

MULTIPLE END POINTS & APPLICATIONS

In devised theatre, there are many pre-existing models and forms (from dance, dance-theatre, community theatre, French creation collective, agit-prop/guerrilla theatre, physical theatre, etc.). But these are always to be reassessed and reinvented contextually; no single normative end-point is assumed. If a drama school funnels individuals towards an assumed goal in an existing industrial niche, in devised theatre training a fan of possibilities opens up, both existing and to be invented.

And as “devised theater” was taking root in England, America had Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s The Living Theatre, inspired by Artaud among many others, that subsequently gave birth to The Open Theater under the direction of Joseph Chaikin and snowballed from there. And everybody ended up responding to Grotowski.

So when we talk about “devised theater” in America we are, in fact, talking about an enormous range of techniques, aesthetics and possible outcomes predicated on “a range of historical and existing models…as well as the possible, the invented, the hybrid.” The central unifying principles of devising are that “pre-existing models are to be reassessed and reinvented contextually; no single normative end-point is assumed” and that devising “emphasises praxis: the ongoing and dynamic connection/dialogue between theory and practice.”

Hence a work of devised theater could, conceivably, end up looking exactly like a well-made play or traditional American suburban backyard play, but it would be intentional, not by default or lack of imagination and interrogation. The actual philosophy of “devised” theater development exists so completely in opposition to the reigning practices and values of cultural production in the American Theater as to defy any possibility of integration or innovation – but more on that later.

As traditional theater practitioners move into “devising” and initiate investigations into their own generative practices, it may be helpful to look at how different artists currently aggregated under the category of “devised” actually make their work.

TO BE CONTINUED …

[This is Part One of a three part series on the background, terminology, practices and implications of “non-traditional” theater.]

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