Many theatre productions begin life as a play, a story involving characters following a journey that has already been written down by a playwright. In this case it is our job as directors and actors to bring this story to life through the creative ways that we choose to present it to an audience. But what happens if when we start we have no script, no characters and no plot? What happens if we are starting with a blank page?
To devise theatre is to make performance from scratch. This usually (although not always) occurs as a process of collaborative creation where a group of individuals come together to share thinking, experiment with ideas and invent a new piece of work together.
The power of devising is in its infinite possibility and the opportunity it offers theatre-makers to make something unique, something which is entirely their own and expresses their own ideas and experience of the world as they find it. Some of the most exciting new theatre and performance made today stems from this practice. Companies working in this way readily experiment with ideas of content, form, structure, staging and styles of performance in order to create new and exciting theatre.
to plan or invent (a complex procedure, system, or mechanism) by careful thought.
– Oxford Dictionary
Devising can be an exciting prospect for a young artist as you begin to apply your developing toolkit to the process of making your own creative decisions and exploring new theatrical possibilities. In many ways, devising is a little like that moment as a child when you are given a blank piece of paper and a box of colours. It is completely up to you to decide how you choose to fill it; whether you will write or draw, recreate an image you have seen before or imagine something completely new. There are so many creative options open to you and it is really not possible to get it ‘wrong’.
One of the things that is most exciting about this type of creative process is that everyone can bring their own individual skills to the mix. You might be a person who finds reading big chunks of text difficult but loves to dance or move on stage. Maybe you express yourself visually and spend hours experimenting with objects and materials or through music and can lose a whole day playing your guitar or harmonica or harp. Devising works on the basis that everyone has something to offer and has their own unique creative potential. The trick is really just to figure out how best to use it.
Another key feature of the devising process is that you do not need to worry about the size of your cast. Whether you have 1, 10 or 100 people it is equally possible to make something brilliant. It also does not matter who is in your group; whatever age, gender, background or ability there is a space for everyone. You can imagine as many roles as there are people to play them. Devising theatre need not be reliant on the idea of having a ‘main part’ but instead relies on the fundamental idea that everyone involved is equally important and can contribute to the overall creative process in all sorts of ways.
For the young people we have worked with, the most valuable thing about devising performance has always been the opportunity it has offered to them to use their own voice and have a say about the world as they find it. Making shows and sharing them with audiences has provided a platform to share some of their ideas, experiences, perspectives and questions with others. It has allowed them to challenge preconceived notions of who can be an artist and who is qualified to make performance and shift focus away from the ‘professional’ adults. In this way it has enabled them to share the power and creativity inherent in young people and energise the conversation around what theatre and performance can look like.
As we consider the potential of devising performance it is also important to consider what the function of art is in the first place. It is a mistake to imagine that it is not all just about ‘entertainment’. Art has always been the way that human beings make sense of the world that we live in. Right back when the Greeks were making the first shows in Athens (the origins of western theatre) they were using theatre as a tool to communicate what they felt and believed about the society they lived in and to engage with their wider community in the larger questions they had about life and existence. This remains true of art to this day; every song, every painting, every poem, every play that you can think of has been born out of human creativity. They are all the result of our need to share our thoughts and feelings and in doing so encourage others to think and feel too. When we consider it this way, we soon come to realise just how very powerful theatre and performance is and the potential it holds for all of us.
Tashi Gore and Jess Thorpe are Co-Artistic Directors of Glass Performance, an international award-winning theatre company. Their latest book A Beginner’s Guide to Devising Theatre is now available!