“You can put your own stamp on any show – but ‘devising’ offers the chance to create a true one-off!”
During lockdown there have been so many interesting and creative ways of making theatre, even when meeting in person was impossible: digital performances taking place over Zoom, fusions of film, theatre and audio, installations popping up, socially distanced performances taking place outside… But there’s one technique which we saw much less of, because it requires a group of people to gather in a room, throw ideas around, try things out and construct a piece of theatre together: devising.
As amateur theatre-makers, you’re probably most familiar with being part of script-based productions. Whether it’s a brand-new piece, or a show that your company has licensed, the play or musical you’ve chosen already exists in a largely fixed form – actors audition for a specific role, learn their lines as written, rehearse the show scene by scene, and then stage the production as written. If it’s a new play, the script can change as things are tried out and reworked in the rehearsal room. But most of the time, in amateur theatre, the director and cast will probably already know what the show will largely be like before they start. This is the dominant model in professional theatre in the UK, too – but it’s by no means the only one.
Devised theatre involves those who are part of the production – which can include the actors, a director and sometimes other roles such as a designer, composer, choreographer, and so on – collaborating to create the piece from scratch. There may be a starting point – perhaps a historical period or personality, or a location, or topic, or object or other artwork. From there, a process of improvisation and development leads to the finished production. Devised theatre can often be physical and movement-based, but many companies involve a writer to turn this creative process into a script, which records what the play has become in the rehearsal room.
Devising is used by everyone from internationally famous theatre companies such as Frantic Assembly and Complicité, all the way through to secondary school pupils, as devising is a key component of GCSE drama. And if the script has been written down and published, then it’s available for amateur groups, schools, youth theatres and others to later pick up and use to make their own production of this collaboratively created show.
For anyone involved with a time-stretched amateur or youth-theatre group, devising a whole play this way might feel unachievable. Luckily, there’s another, ‘hybrid’ model, which you can use to create a show that’s uniquely your own, but with a bit of a head-start. For a few years now, one of the UK’s leading youth theatres, Company Three, has been producing what they call ‘blueprints’ of their productions. These give groups who license the plays the tools they need to take the original script, and then insert the licensing company’s own, newly devised material – so they end up with a play that draws directly on the performers’ individual experiences, but doesn’t require you to create absolutely everything.
Company Three’s show, Brainstorm, for instance, investigates how teenagers’ brains work. It was devised with a group of young people, in collaboration with a neuroscientist, with the production performed at the National Theatre in London and broadcast by the BBC. The ‘Blueprint’ of the show retains the play’s framework, with scenes that explain the scientific elements, but also provides games and exercises which companies can use to generate personal material from the young people taking part. So far, dozens of groups worldwide have used this Blueprint to create their own, unique versions of Brainstorm, and no two productions have been the same!
This is also the approach behind Company Three’s current project, When This is Over, which other youth-theatre groups can now sign up to perform. Created in response to the International Climate Conference (COP26) which will be held in Glasgow this November, When This is Over sees the young performers in the production stand on stage and tell their own, personal stories to an audience – all the way from the very beginning (maybe at the moment of their birth, or well before that), through to the present day, and on to when they think their story ends (be that their death, or thousands of years into the future). It’s not a play directly about Covid or the Climate Emergency, though of course the shadows of both, and their impact on this new generation just starting out, loom large. It’s about amplifying these young voices, and reminding us that the decisions we make now will massively affect those who don’t get a say in them.
Company Three are currently working on their own production of When This is Over. But they’re also inviting youth-theatre groups, schools and others to sign up to create their own parallel versions of the play, using the games and exercises in the When This is Over Blueprint to create a show that will share the same basic structure as everyone else’s, but will be unique to every individual group that takes part. The idea is that companies will then all perform the show around COP26 at the end of 2021 or start of 2022, to create a massive platform for young people’s voices, simultaneously all around the world. The groups involved will also be linked together to create an online community, sharing your experiences of making the show and seeing how others are getting on, too. Nick Hern Books is really proud to be partnering with Company Three on When This is Over – so if you’re involved with a youth-theatre group, and this sounds of interest, you can read the full Blueprint online now, for free, and then sign up to create your own version of the play.
It seems to me that right now is the perfect time to be making this kind of theatre. For so much of the past eighteen months, we’ve been isolated from each other, and with avalanches of often-scary news and information coming at us constantly, it’s been easy to feel invisible and unimportant in the face of this massive thing we’re all living through. So a devised show like When This is Over, which gives its participants the chance to be involved in the creation of the play, and to tell their story, seen and heard by an audience, is about as ideal an antidote to Covid isolation as I can imagine.
The bulk of your season is always going to be plays and musicals, and those are brilliant, with countless different ways to be creative and put your own stamp on a show (though if you’re looking to make any major textual changes, remember to run those by us for approval first). But shows like this, that allow the performers to tell their own stories, and be listened to, offer an alternative experience and the chance to create a genuinely one-off production you can truly call your own. So as you look to how you’ll get back to making theatre now that – at least at the time of writing! – the major restrictions have come to an end, maybe consider throwing in something different too. It might be just exactly what you needed.
Tamara von Werthern has been Performing Rights Manager at Nick Hern Books since 2005. She is also a playwright, screenwriter and theatre-maker.