Performance arts

The People Show 121: The rise of devising and collaborative theatre as actor and playwright become one

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What is devising and how is it changing the way we produce theatre? The People Show has been doing it since the late sixties, but more and more devised shows are making it onto the mainstream market.
Sophie Morlin-Yron reports

It’s 7.30 on a typical autumn evening and The Old Red Lion Pub in Islington is bustling with people. Most of them are there to neck back an after work beer. Only a handful are waiting for the bell to ring for the opening performance of The Detective Show in the small, intimate theatre above the bar.

Experimental theatre company The People Show’s 121st production, since its beginning in 1966, is a murder mystery in Agatha Christie style with a classic whodunnit? theme. But this show is anything but old-fashioned. Starting with a white outline on the floor, the narrative takes us on a journey in time. As the fast-paced story unravels, the audience is entertained with a unique experience including: a seagull salad, an Agatha Christie walking tour and Adolf Hitler’s daughter.

What separates this show from more mainstream productions is that it was created in a collaborative fashion, through a method called devising, which is used more and more on the London theatre scene.

Whilst most productions originate from a script by a playwright, a devised story develops through improvisation and play by the cast, the writer and the technical crew. While rehearsing, what often starts with a few story ideas grows bigger and bigger. John Wright, director and producer of  Collaborative and Devised Theatre (CDT), and founder of The Wright School describes the process as “a snowball going downhill”.

Anyone unfamiliar with devising might walk away thinking they have just seen an improvisation as the performers make it seem as though they are making it up as they go along. This, the constant change of costumes and re-organising of the Spartan props all happening right in front of us, is a story in itself. “Fact is, the entire performance is very much rehearsed,” … explains Jessica Worrall, one of the seven artists who make up the People Show. David Duchin, General Manager, adds: “We say artists because like jazz it encompasses a range of skills and talent. For example the lighting designer may also sing and perform.”

There has been an increase in devising and other experimental theatre productions in the capital. The People Show, winners of Herald Archangel Awards 2012, is only one example. Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man at the National Theatre has been sold out for months. Stan’s Café is another touring company known to use the technique.

The Arts Council’s research project Writ Large, carried out a few years ago, showed an increase in devised work: 19 per cent of new work productions and 7 per cent of new writing performances in the study were devised. New figures are being compiled. Playwright David Edgar, who uses the more traditional writer-led approach, was involved in the project. He says: “There’s no doubt there’s been an upsurge over the last 10-15 years.” He has been studying the current repertoire of three theaters with a reputation for hosting experimental work. One of them was the Young Vic, a pioneer of non-traditional playmaking. Their current season of 11 productions includes three devised plays.

Sinead Rushe, teaches CDT at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. She says devising is entering the mainstream. “It’s different from, say, 20 years ago when this kind of work was very marginal.”

Despite recent successes devising is not for everyone. The majority of plays are still writer-led productions, meaning they derive from a script written and attributed to a playwright. While some embrace devising, others are not convinced.

Jeremy Herrin, Artistic Director at Headlong Theatre, whose shows are essentially writer-led productions says: “The reason why I haven’t gone towards it is that I have always preferred to engage with a bold singular vision of a writer.”

He continues: “In my experience, most new plays, even if they end up with an author’s name on the cover of the script, are collaborations, in that the writer will respond to what the actors are doing, what the director is suggesting and the space itself. As a practitioner I’m suspicious of dividing theatre into collaborative and non-collaborative.”

What’s so attractive about the technique? Contrary to the lonely experience of single authorship, some think working in a group can spur creativity. Catherine Alexander teaches CDT, also at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. She says: “I like to create as part of an ensemble. I am not a writer who can produce a script, but I can write in collaboration with a team of actors and creatives. Other people can often help us achieve what is impossible to do ourselves.”

For the actor, devising gives a sense of ownership and an opportunity to write and direct rather than merely interpreting other people’s work. This is changing the role and the training of the actor. Ms Alexander says: “The directors and actors who have always worked in devising are now increasingly in demand in the more traditional theatre institutions.”

She thinks experimental theatre works particularly well with London audiences and that it’s here to stay: “Theatre can feel like it is stagnating but the work of more recent devising companies brings an excitement back to the theatrical event. Londoners tend to be brave and don’t like predictability. Devised work brings a sense of the mysterious and unknown back to the theatrical event. Not least a sense of theatre being fashionable and even radical.”

Back at The Old Red Lion The Detective Show is reaching the end, but the murder mystery is nowhere near a resolution. The audience makes up for its small numbers in sound as they can’t seem to stop laughing. One of the actors climbs on the spot lit chair in the corner, which indicates he is taking the role of the narrator: “As the past catches up with the present – things are about to turn a little bit nasty. In eight minutes you will be back in the bar and I will join you..”

He keeps both promises. After having his face plunged in a mop bucket full of water, a resolution, and excited applause – the actors can be seen mingling with the theatre goers. Whether or not devising is your preferred technique these artists clearly love sharing authorship of this murder mystery.

What: Experimental Theatre
Where: People Show is a touring company, their next London play Fallout is coming soon. For details see http://www.peopleshow.co.uk/#!people-show-124-fallout/cl9g

Take a sneak peak at the People Show’s devising process here.

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