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Theatre Topics 15.1 (2005) 15-21

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Why Devise? Why Now?

"Houston, we have a problem."

My son and I were watching Apollo 13 not too long ago. There was a crisis in space and you heard one of the astronauts say to NASA, "Houston, we have a problem." The person in charge, seeing a complex problem, assembled a diverse group of people, each of whom had different skills and different strengths to offer. He said, "You've got to figure this out." They were able to convert what could have been a tragedy into a triumph. That is the challenge that I am trying to leave with you. How can we collaborate, brainstorm creatively, put the big issues on the table and come together as a community so that we can convert what could have been a tragedy into a triumph?
—Lani Guinier, "Educational Opportunity and Democracy" lecture at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, February 11, 1998

Why Devise? Why Now?

There are countless less complex and labor-intensive ways to entertain audiences, bring communities together, and/or to start revolutions. So, why work collaboratively to devise new plays/productions when so many great plays already exist and deserve to be produced? Perhaps:

  1. For the pure hedonistic pleasure of working collaboratively. No, it's not a joyous Bacchanalian orgy from start to finish, but WOW! . . . the heady pleasure when everything (and everyone) starts coming together!
  2. For the narcissistic thrill of creating something new. Sondheim's Georges Seurat sings "Look, I made a hat . . . where there never was a hat!" Ach . . . sometimes, when I hear those lyrics, I think I could kill for the talent to accomplish such a millinery feat . . . in oils or song.

However, to devise for joy alone? Oy. It can be absolutely harrowing, this process of devising collaboratively. It can wreak havoc on individuals, on friendships, on the gestalt of an otherwise harmonious ensemble or community. Yes, conceptually, the stone soup concept is so beautiful, magical, populist—Power to the People! But, really . . . too many chefs can spoil the stew. I have a vague memory of my twelfth-grade art history teacher talking about the design contest for the north doors of the Baptistry of Florence. Mr. Walcot cautioned us that Brunelleschi had lost because, as he worked on his panel image, he continually [End Page 15] asked both cognescenti and random passersby for their input, and repeatedly mucked around with his design in response to what everyone said.

But, here's why devise collaboratively: Just as cavemen developed different stone blades for killing, skinning, cutting, etc. . . . Often the perfect play/piece does not already exist to accomplish the specific task at hand.

Well, I'll start by 'fessing up that, when I talk of "tasks," what is of greatest interest and importance to me right now is finding ways to open hearts and minds, to raise consciousness and open constructive dialogue about social justice issues. I believe theatre can provide powerful tools for doing this. I'm going to assume that y'all agree with me. Now, certainly, there have been and continue to be brilliant productions of the classics, some very traditional, some radically re-envisioned, as well as powerful new productions—Stop Kiss, Caroline or Change, Wicked, Nickel and Dimed, and so, so many more—that engage audiences in mind-expanding ways about critical issues. In many instances, however, in order to effectively address a specific issue of concern located in a specific time and place, it's crucial to get a fresh start, to root one's work in the specifics.

With Fringe Benefits Theatre, we start by talking with a community of people about social justice issues—especially those concerning discrimination and diversity—that are negatively impacting their lives. The communities of people we've worked with to date range from Mr. Richardson's fifth-grade class at Bunche Elementary School in Compton, California to the Korean Immigrant Workers Association, from Families to Amend California's Three Strikes to homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) youth, and from...


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