What in the WORLD is Devised Theatre?

Written by Alex Colle

The second semester of your first year in York’s Theatre program is a decision-making nightmare.
Do I enrol in Acting II? How about Stagecraft II? Do I want to stream into Acting? Or maybe Production? Should I apply to Playwriting and New Play Dramaturgy? Should I stay in Theatre Studies? What in the WORLD is Devised Theatre? Wait, that last question isn’t really a decision. But it’s a question I receive almost weekly from first years.

What IS Devised Theatre?!

Well, let’s take a look at my THEA 2050 3.0 Introduction to Devised Theatre course description to see if we can get a bit of an idea:
THEA 2050 3.0 Introduction to Devised Theatre I offers students an introduction to the devising of original theatre in a collaborative setting. Through classroom exercises and the creation, rehearsal, and presentation of devised and interpreted performance projects, the participants will explore the essential questions and investigative tools of the theatre practitioner. Collaboration, commitment, curiosity, and effective communication are the foundations of this rigorous curriculum. The course also introduces key genres and histories of devised and experimental theatre, and students engage in critical discussions of the aesthetics and ethics of these forms.”

Okay…now how about in common English, Alex?
I feel the first sentence of that description, although generalized, is an accurate way of describing what we do in rooms ACE 207 and 209. The devising of original theatre in a collaborative setting.

One of the great beauties of theatre is the ability to take a common story and tell it in so many different ways. This winter, I saw Macbeth presented almost completely through dance. Oh, but here’s the kicker: it wasn’t presented on stage. It was shown in a five-story building and was completely free-roam. It was the most incredible show I have ever seen.

In my first semester of DT, there was a big focus on learning new ways to create, rehearse, and present stories. We were encouraged to experiment with new and different genres to present an idea or a story line. For example, rather than taking the script of A Streetcar Named Desire and performing the play line by line, what if you depicted the play through physical metaphors? A back-and-forth discussion between Stanley and Stella can be depicted through the dance form of tango. The predation of Stanley towards Blanche can be depicted through the stalking of a young gazelle by a lion. Or how about modernizing Woyzeck and placing it in a mental institution filled with security footage and ruthless doctors? Of course, someone might see these tactics as gimmicky, but what if someone saw it as a way to present stories and open up new meanings and ideas and understandings? In Devised Theatre, this is a goal that we strive for each and every class.

I’d be silly to not mention the politically charged nature of Devised Theatre. In my class, and in all of our classes, we are not just students of theatre, we are students of society. Although some might disagree, I believe that – as artists – it is our job to educate the masses about the problems of our society’s way of living. Homophobia, sexism, media brainwashing, and mental illness stigma are all outdated ways of thinking that are still evident in our city, country, and world.

Devised Theatre gives us the perfect opportunity to take these ways of thinking, turn them on their heads, and critique them in new, thought-provoking ways. This class forces us to think further outside of ourselves individually. We are encouraged to look at these issues head on and find ways to address them theatrically. In this class, we are encouraged to find empowerment in and through each other. Even through one semester, I’ve never felt closer as an active member of society in a classroom in my life, and being around people who feel the same is a powerful experience.

Finally, for those who thought that Devised Theatre is an individual process, you are sorely mistaken. Looking back at the course description: “Collaboration, commitment, curiosity, and effective communication are the foundations of this rigorous curriculum.

Collaboration, commitment, curiosity, communication.
If any of these fail to be seen in the process of making a devised piece of theatre, it will most certainly be seen by the audience in the end result. Between group members attempting to devise a highly conceptualized piece of theatre, dozens of ideas will be tossed out between multiple people, usually all within the same time span. In this setting, it is encouraged that you learn how to take each idea, discuss it in a fair manner, and decide to proceed with it or not. It is also encouraged that you sometimes learn that your idea isn’t the best idea for the group, and that you must trust the people you are working with. This must always be done through effective communication. Despite this, you must also trust your instincts, no matter how fleeting.

Be curious.
Take chances.
Be daring.

But be smart about it. Don’t try to “wow” people for the sake of “wowing.”

Have purpose.
Be confident with yourself.
You got this far, so there must be a reason for it.

There is something special inside of you waiting to be seen on a stage. Devised Theatre gives you a wonderful opportunity to do so.