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I'm an NYC-based director, and this is an outlet for my various musings about theater and about the city of New York. Sometimes the subjects run together, sometimes they are entirely separate, but between the two they comprise the most fitful, most intense, most trying love affair of my few years. They fill my head, my heart, my mouth every hour of every day; they could fill a book.

Friday, February 4, 2011

More #Newplay Thoughts: Devised Theater

I found it interesting that roundtable discussion and breakouts on devised theater that began on Day 2 of the #newplay convening came on the heels of the "Big Thoughts from Four Big Thinkers" panel because it seems to me a major theme running through the ideas they presented was collaboration. Meiyin Wang spoke about it indirectly, predicting how the barriers between different theater artists will come down, giving way to theatermaker hybrids - designer/playwrights, actor/funders, and so-forth. Kirk Lynn hit the nail right on the head, proclaiming that in the future, more artists will follow his company, the Rude Mechanicals' example and seek out collaborations as a "healthy" and effective way of making art. Marc Masterson encouraged listeners to seek out creative alliances.

The future of theater, at least through the lens of this discussion, seems bent toward collaboration. So it's interesting to me, in that light, the concerns that were raised about devised theater, particularly the loss of the playwright's primacy - that is, the act of taking the playwright out of the driver’s seat and putting the creative process in the hands of the group.

It makes me wonder: is there a difference between collaboration and devised theater? Perhaps collaboration is just the umbrella term under which devised work falls, but there seems to be a distinctly different flavor about the two concepts. And if there is a difference, what is it? Is it a question of when? Does devised work come out of rehearsal, whereas a collaboration occurs before rehearsals begin? Is it a numbers game? Two's a collaboration, three's a crowd/devised work?

Of course ultimately it's all semantics, but I think the key to creating successful theater, especially when it comes to navigating a group dynamic and respecting an artist's primacy, is for everyone to be on the same page about how it's going to be created. Developing a shared vocabulary is a part of that.

Why? Well, take for example, the concerns Lydia Diamond raised during the initial roundtable. In her report for the New Play Blog, Trisha Mead relates the following story:

Woolly Mammoth is trying to devise a new play development process that will live somewhere between the traditional institutional process and the devised work of a festival like the Public's Under the Radar.

[It was] noted that some of their most successful projects have been created with young playwrights who "didn't know any better yet" and were therefore willing to give over their work to a director who helped them to learn about their own play, yielding "AHA" artistic moments that were greater than the sum of their parts...

...At which point Diamond became distressed at the idea that the playwright’s primacy - that is, his right to be in the driver's seat of his own creation - should be supplanted by the group.

Now, if we're operating from the perspective that the playwright has an idea, writes it down, loves it, nurtures it, brings it into being - it's HIS story, HIS world, HIS play - if within that context someone (or ones) says during the course of development, "We want to change XYZ about your play," and the playwright, being too young or timid to know how to stand up for what he wants, goes along, then I agree, that doesn't seem quite fair. The writer deserves to have the last word over HIS work. But if the circumstances were such that the playwright should bring a new work to the table to be discussed and developed by the group and the playwright knew that going into it - is that so unfair? Or if, say, the group approaches the playwright and says "We have this great idea that we want to explore together - will you be our playwright?" Who, if anybody, has the artistic control in that situation? Does it change if it's the playwright who approaches the group, rather than vice versa?

No one will argue that are as many ways to bring a play into being as there are ways to skin a cat, and when it comes to collaborations of any kind, somebody is going to lose some creative control - that's kind of the point. But the trick, if you ask me, is to make sure everybody is clear from the start on exactly what kind of project it is, and what exactly that means. How? By developing that communal language. By engaging in a dialogue and asking the questions, when is it YOUR play, when is it MY play and when is it OUR play? and by answering them clearly and collectively.

One of the things that stood out to me in the most during the #newplay Twitter-flury last week came during the primacy vs. group dynamic debate; a comment by playwright Kristoffer Diaz:

I don't want to be god, but I do want to be the artist that all other artists take their cues from. #newplay

At first I was just vaguely amused, because as far as creative hierarchy is concerned, that sounds about as close to god as you can get. But the more I thought about it, the more valid it sounded.

I've known plenty of colleagues (and a few college professors far to full of themselves) who would consider the director to be the one calling the creative shots for the production, but that just doesn't seem right to me. If you ask me, my job is not to speak, but to combine and amplify every other creative voice in the room in a way that is consistent and powerful. My job is to listen.

So naturally, I'm drawn to collaboration in general, and particularly devised theater. More ideas! More voices! More listening!

In this sense, the question of primacy involves me less immediately: As far as I'm concerned, I have none. Or, very little. I'm a quilter, not a weaver. Coming, as I do, from this perspective, yes, I am curious as to when and how the artist(s) can claim artistic ownership over a project. But really, only as it influences my more pressing question: which collaborative permutations really work? Is giving the playwright total artistic control the most productive way to create a story? Lydia Diamond claims that relinquishing a playwright of his primacy does not serve the playwright's vision. But does it serve the play? Please don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating that anybody should be allowed to manipulate another's creative or intellectual property for the sake of the art. When it's yours it's YOURS. What I want to know is, does it work better when it's ours?

Back to Diaz’s tweet: my first thoughts on reading it were, Fair enough. Somebody’s got to be the artist from whom everyone takes their cues, and I don’t think it should be me. It really ought to be the playwright.

In terms of “traditional” process (ie, the playwright writes a script, develops it, turns it over to a creative team (director/actors/designers etc.) to rehearse and perform) I stand by that. It makes sense that the playwright’s voice should be the most regarded in the room. But in terms of more collaborative/devised work, is that necessarily true? For work that, well, works to happen:

1.Does the person in the driver’s seat need to be the playwright?
2.Does there need to be somebody in that seat at all?

First of all, let’s be honest. A lot of times devised work doesn’t really work. It was interesting to note that many artists at the convening drew back from the label, "devised theater". I am not one of those artists, by the way, probably because I haven't used it enough to feel the judgmental repercussions of being slapped with the label. I still regard it as an exciting new frontier to explore, filled with unknown trails and channels that chart new directions to get at the proverbial it. I’ve seen enough amazing stuff to know that there's something really exciting going on here that I want to be a part of.

But don’t get me wrong. I’ve also seen a lot of really really bad devised theater too. The kind of work that makes theater artists uncomfortable identifying with the term and makes Isaac Butler of Parabasis declare that devised work is “messy” and a process that is often “used to justify shoddy work.”

Is the reason for this messy/shoddy outcome a lack of artistic leadership? According to Guy Yedwab, the answer is yes – or at least yes, devised work works better with a traditional rehearsal process and a director/dramaturg/editor at the helm to bring the piece together. Over on CultureFuture, he attempts to answer some of these questions on when, whether, and how devised work works, as well as more clearly define the term:

Note that devised work is a different drafting process; one that requires rehearsal space and other resources. A lot of devised work companies make the mistake of conflating the drafting process with the production process; they don't leave time between the creating of something and the process of making it good -- the editing and finessing process. That, I think, is what causes Isaac to wish that the "director" or the "playwright/editor" had been more present.

To me, it would be perfectly plausible to use a devised work process to create a first "script", and then to put a traditional-style director in charge of it and say, "make this good." In the traditional-style directing process, as it was communicated to me, the director and the cast operate in a mode of trying to bring a particular intention to life in the most sharply defined way possible. No reason why you can't do that with a work that has been created in an ensemble-derived environment.

All right, fair enough. But it’s the drafting process – the devised part, where the script is created – that’s what I’m really curious about. Should there be a leader during that process as well, or does imposing a creative hierarchy to the creative process defeat the devised point? And must the leader be the playwright? Or might it be the dramaturg, or the editor, or the (oh dear) director?

When I think back to my personal experiences with devised work, one instance leaps out at me as being particularly successful. During the rehearsal process for What Work Is (if you’re curious about that project, you can click here), I developed two fantastic monologues with a particular actor named Clare. In both cases the process was more or less the same:

•We started with a poem which we read together, analyzed and discussed its meaning. We talked about how we identified with the poem in our own lives, and how the character Clare was developing might identify with it.

•I asked her to, on her own, develop a scene or monologue for her character that reflected the themes and ideas that we had discussed in the poem.

•She returned with her monologue, which she performed for the group and we discussed. I asked her questions about where and how this fit in with the larger conflict/character arc we were in the process of developing. Based on our discussion, I suggested that she make certain changes, highlight certain aspects that were more central to the play’s narrative as a whole, etc.

•She came back in with the changes, and we would read, discuss, repeat.

I suppose, despite my previous distaste for the idea, in this case I was the artist “from whom all the other artists took their cues,” as Diaz put it. But, at the same time, part of what worked so well about the collaboration was Clare’s strength as a playwright. The beautiful, moving monologues that Clare wrote were hers and hers alone, and could never have been created without her own clear, personal vision. In fact, much of the misfires (and there were many misfires involved with that show) of the early rehearsals were a result of the actors looking to me for leadership and me not knowing what on earth I was doing. The process really took shape, as much for me as for them, when they began to take real ownership over the roles and stories they were developing.

Hmm. I don’t have answers here, just questions.

It’s a strange and delicate relationship between creative autonomy and group dynamic, both in terms of respecting creative ownership and finding a rhythm that creates strong, powerful art. And if the “Four Big Thinkers” of the #newplay convening are right, it’s one we as artists are going to continue to have to grapple with as we move toward a more collaborative future. But I, for one, can’t wait.


  1. I love that the new play convening has sparked so many discussions about devised work. I sort of stumbled into it a few years ago with a healthy dose of skepticism. Several years later, I'm the cofounder of a devised theatre company and teach devised theatre to teens at Imagination Stage. At the same time, I'm a playwright with a strong artistic vision and spend much of my time writing plays using the traditional lock-myself-in-a-room-drink-lots-of-coffee method of theatre creation.

    My company, Bright Alchemy Theatre, has followed that two-part process of devising the material, then rehearsing/refining for the two plays we've produced. Our method allows for a loooong time between beginning and final product. We just wrapped up a production that was over two years in the making.

    As the resident playwright, I suppose I'm in the driver's seat for much of the text-creation process. However, I don't consider the rest of the ensemble members to be passengers along for a ride. It's more like they're the parts of the car that allow me to get anywhere in the first place.

    We'll be starting the devising process for our next piece sometime in early spring and I have plans (if the other company members are comfortable with it) to blog on 2amtheatre.com and document our process as we go.

  2. Hi Steve! I'm looking forward to reading about your process! It's no secret how much I <3 2amt.

    I know what you mean about healthy skepticism - the director in me rejoices at the idea of such collaboration, so many voices in the room. The dramaturg in me, though, doesn't want ANYTHING to do with stories that aren't traditional and linear in structure. Where to find the balance?

    I'm glad you seem to have found it, and if I am ever in DC I will check Bright Alchemy out! I am jealous... I have never had the luxury of working on the same piece for two years and I would love to someday - must be an amazing experience.

    Thanks for reading!