What is devised theatre?

The second part of our ‘Back of the Van’ is the play ‘To the Ocean: A Modern Selkie Story’, a piece which was created by our sister company, BlackBox Devising Company. But what actually is devised theatre?? I hear you cry. BackBox describes itself as: ‘St Andrews’ first devising company run by and for students, creating cutting edge theatre using the voice of our generation.’ Which sounds pretty cool, and it is pretty cool. This does not, however, answer the question of what devised theatre actually is.

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When I signed up for BlackBox I had no clear idea what the process entailed, and even after a semester in the company I’m not sure I could give you a proper definition. This is because devising is a mix of many approaches including improvisation, scriptwriting, collaboration, and script work. So I did some research. While there were many different definitions that reflected parts of my experience in a devising company, the one I identified the most with was from Vanessa Garcia’s article The Paradox of Devised Theater on the Twenty-First Century Stage, she describes devised theatre as ‘theatre that begins without a script. The script gets “written” as the rehearsal process takes place through a series of improvisations and collaborations.’ The idea of the script getting written almost as a side-effect of the rehearsal process is particularly interesting, because for me that is how ‘To The Ocean’ came into being. Now, that is not to say that a lot of hard work didn’t go into its creation, because believe me it did. The process, however, was not as stressful as I’d initially imagined it to be. It was fun, we worked as a team improvising scenes which could then be improved and refined. We weren’t working with a script where you have to uncover your character, our characters revealed themselves to us. We got to know our characters as they as the grew along with their story.

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Garcia’s definition also highlights the collaborative nature of devising. As a relatively inexperienced actor, I found the prospect of working with people who knew a lot more about theatre than I did daunting. But these concerns were quickly allayed. Our first couple of workshops focused heavily on getting to know each other, and after these I felt much more comfortable with the group of people with whom I was working. ‘To the Ocean’ has a small cast of four, and along with Oli our director, we all quickly developed an understanding of our personalities, and the different approaches we all brought to the same scenes or ideas was very interesting. Collating a range of different reactions, opinions, and thoughts about different issues is what I think makes a devised piece of work so special. This is why BlackBox can say they create ‘cutting edge theatre using the voice of our generation’, because that is truly what they do. We as students of a certain age are representative of our own generation, and the beauty of devising theatre in a university such as St Andrews is that its students come from a wide variety of backgrounds meaning that many different voices can be heard.     

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Devised theatre has become more popular over the past couple of decades. Where I think the practice particularly excels is in its ability to deconstruct social issues. Different people respond to different events in completely different ways. There is a huge criteria of factors which affect one’s response to any given situation, ranging from age, gender, ethnicity, location, to infinitesimally small details such as what you had for breakfast. No one can quite predict how the human brain will respond to things. The beauty of devised theatre is that its collaborative nature means an event is not just seen through one person’s eyes, it is not just portrayed in a way which reflects one brain’s dissection and summation of a situation. In a time where we are finally seeing more and more people develop their own political voice, this aspect of devised theatre is particularly exciting.    

To sum up, I shall borrow another quote from Garcia, ‘devised theatre is a theatre made up of the essence of art—collaboration and process—a deep, underground process that participants must enfold themselves in’. Devising demands dedication to the process, however, the end results pay off. While ‘To the Ocean’ may seem to be an unassuming modern fairy tale, anyone who knows anything about fairy stories can tell you there is much more to this genre than it simply being a bedtime story. Fairy tales have the ability to highlight how magic can exist in the world today, they show how to get through times of tribulation, and fundamentally demonstrate what it means to love and be human. To explore these ideas in a devised theatre setting was especially pertinent because the multiplicity of voices that went into the creation of the story helped to reflect the universal quality of a fairy tale.

‘To the Ocean’ will be performed alongside BoxedIn’s version of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘Play on’ this summer from the 2nd June to the 19th August as we take our ‘Back of the Van’ trilogy on tour. Make sure you’re following us on  Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to keep updated on everything we’re up to!

 

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