Angsty Black Turtlenecks and Bizarre Chants Aren't The Only Things in Devised Theatre

Black turtlenecks on black leggings on black socks on black shoes. Blue spotlights on black boxes. Eerie music echoing against the dimmed ceiling lights. Weird chanting that is regurgitated out of actors’ throats. This is what is typically imagined when someone says devised theatre.


Devised theatre is defined as a process in which the whole creative team develops a show collaboratively (John Walton). Yes, we have all seen the hilarious SNL skit on devised theater and probably caught an hour of two of a high school’s devised work too. Overall, this form of theatre doesn’t have the best reputation. However, devising a show is a rigorous process that requires immaculate planning, constant editing, speedy revising, lengthy rehearsing and unrelenting determination; things most people don’t recognize. 


Currently, I am working on a devised piece of theatre about self-love entitled Enough at VCU’s laboratory theater. When I was cast into this production, I had no idea the amount of work that was forthcoming. Putting together a production in three weeks and two days is arduous when a script is already provided for you. Putting together a production in three weeks and two days starting with solely a concept is INSANE. 

In order to start a devised piece, a cast must get incredibly close incredibly quick in order to feel comfortable working with one another. For Enough, we all talked about our journeys towards and/or through self-love, since that was the topic of the show. It was difficult for me to be upfront about some of the most sensitive topics in my life. However, it was paramount to the production. As we shared our stories, we began to pick out which to include in the show. Dealing with telling one’s own story is difficult because a person must differentiate between what is important to them and what is important for conveying the message of the show. 


Once the cast of a devised piece has begun to pick out the things they wish to say, they have to look at how they want to arrange them. In the case of our show, doing a series of longwinded monologues about struggling with body image and name-calling and insecurities would be, nicely put, unbearable. Therefore, we had to find a manner in which to interweave the stories, so they transition back and forth seamlessly.  Looking through the pieces we searched for commonalities: loving to play dress up, being in the third grade and height. 


Even with the stories interlaced, a bunch of people talking one by one is rather predictable. Why would an audience want to watch something they could foresee how it was going to play out, espeically when they already are anticipating black-cloaked, angsty theatre? In order to liven up our show, we added dance numbers. Yes, dance NUMBERS. When talking about body image, everyone has had something yucky happen to them and that was blatantly present in our stories. However, everyone also has had mornings spent using a hair brush as a microphone or moments in front of the mirror boogying post-shower. We wanted to recognize the two contrasting feelings. So, we broke up the heartfelt, honest monologues with some bopping dance numbers. Now, on top of editing a working script and obtaining the means of production, we were also choreographing. 


Once the script is mostly composed, with room for necessary changes as things arise, the show must be blocked. Blocking is telling an actor where and when to move in order to produce a desired effect. While this is happening, a myriad of other things are occurring too: set pieces are being acquired, the script is being edited, choreography is being rehearsed and lights are being programmed. Lines are also being memorized, programs are being assembled, sound is being cued, posters are being printed and costumes are being selected. That is a buttload of work, for everyone involved. 


So yes, devised theatre can fall into the cult-like obsession with random things and an odd manner of conveying simple points. However, it is paramount that people recognize that not all devised theatre falls into the interpretive dance and chanty chant production category. With relentless work and honest portrayal, devised theatre can be extremely moving and important because it says the things a particular group, working collaboratively, wishes to say. There may never be another time that those artists get to work on something they wrote from scratch and determine that it was paramount to show the world. Devised theatre gives a voice to those that spend their lives giving their voices to other people and that is why it is so very momentous. 


Photo Credit: Mary Hope Photography