Suggestions for Devising

A colleague just posed a question about devising theatre, seeking suggestions for exercises and rehearsal timeline — in terms of how long experimentation can take place versus finalizing the piece — and in particular seeking reference materials offering strategies for devised work.

[Need a definition of “devised work”? There are a million ways to devise, but in essence theatre-makers talk about “devising” when they start without a script and make a performance in a collaborative manner.]

Here’s my suggestions for devising:

Timeframe

In my experience / the way I like to work is that there is no set timeframe for experimentation versus setting / scripting the devised piece. What is important is that you *do* actually move from one phase to the other, and you are clear about when the generative phase moves into the editing / setting / scripting phase. Which is not to say that there aren’t changes that can be made throughout the process, but rehearsals have to begin at some point, and you have to have something to rehearse. The move from one phase to the other can happen in phases if you like: perhaps you have scenes that are set, but you keep fussing with the order. Or, you have the general outline of events, but the lines or the blocking is subject to change for a while. Etc. It helps to repetitively┬ástate where you are in the process, highlighting when something is ending and another thing is beginning. You can make adjustments to the process as necessary so long as you verbalize that those adjustments have been made.

For scheduling, build time into the ‘rehearsal’ process to make changes, edits, reordering, etc — just as you would working on any new play. I find it’s best to create a schedule working backward from your opening, as with any show, and be sure that you have a comfortable ‘rehearsal’ period that you feel is appropriate to rehearse the work *after* the generative process is over. But the generative process itself can be any length of time.

Exercises

As to exercises — it depends on the piece itself, but I always find that any form of ensemble-building is helpful. The type of exercises you use will depend on the style of your piece: if it’s very visual, perhaps there’s some activities similar to Moment Work (Tectonic Theatre); if literary, writing exercises (there are a wealth online that can be adapted to playwriting processes); if physical, Viewpoints, contact improv, weight sharing. Every process can benefit from exercises that build trust and encourage ensemble listening (plenty of those online as well). Using the exercises that you are most comfortable with will likely be more beneficial than trying something totally new, since you are already in uncharted waters, and the exercises you know can serve as grounding points and containers for experimentation.

Materials

I’m not offering materials. Naturally I have learned from and stolen/borrowed/adapted from others along the path of devising, from teachers to colleagues to collaborators. And perhaps I’ve just been out of school too long, but I think that this sort of learning-by-doing is much more valuable to the devising process than reading about it. Just remember to take notes for yourself as you learn by doing, and refer to them. Then you’ll have your own reference materials.
After all, devising is the way in which we as theatre artists collaboratively move from praxis — interpreting someone else’s “work” — to poetics, creating our own. As a matter of principle, I think that everyone should devise somewhat differently. To me, the exciting part of devised theatre is that you make your own map.

Bon voyage!