- Why Devise?Why Now?
Inasmuch as theatre artists consider themselves members of a society in crisis, the devising of new work is required of them. Civil society has been replaced by a pervasive market-based rationality that expresses itself physically in landscapes of nowhere, in communities of no place. The aim of artists must now include the development not only of new work and new types of artmaking, but also the new sense of place. The mission's failure could mean a loss of society's ability to renew its sense of reasonableness, its humane cultures of care, and the institutions and communities that once defined the highest ideals of civilization.
All the arts are called to the mission, but the theatre has a particular part to play, and devised theatre especially: Professional devised theatre tends to be made in ensembles––communities of artists working in collaboration over long periods of time––and ensembles by definition tend to make work that is in one way or another about community (even if only by grace of the fact that an ensemble is itself a dedicated community). Thus, over time, professional theatre that is made for communities, in communities, and by communities contributes to its audience (and by extension the world) a theme of identity rooted in place. A commitment to devising new theatre, now, is in a real sense an investment in the meaning of place, and few things are more urgently needed.
Sociologist and globalization theorist Manuel Castells has shown how the modern world as we knew it has been transformed into a "network society," in which local places are increasingly important as sources of identity, resistance, and power. He says that "localists" operating outside the traditional halls of power offer the seeds of new "networks of social change."
It is in these back alleys of society . . . in grassrooted networks of communal resistance, that I have sensed the embryos of a new society, labored in the fields of history by the power of identity.(#52@362)
A body of empirical analysis is emerging in support of Castells's descriptions of the effects of globalization, suggesting an urgent need for identity of place. Most notable is the work of arts economist (and former expert on the US military/industrial complex) Ann Markusen, who shows that while globalization makes places more distinct from each other, the internal identities of those places are made increasingly similar. So, Minneapolis, Marseilles, and Montreal must each develop a unique "macro" identity in order to compete with each other globally, while within each city the "micro" identities of ordinary folks will be framed by the now-familiar American-style cookie-cutter un-scape of chain retail strip stores, restaurants, and coffeeshops lining quaint redeveloped downtown corridors, surrounded by suburbs, fringed with big-box retail and regional airports. [End Page 23]
Change may only come slowly, but it is certain to only come locally, since in a globalized world the masses are only represented at the local level. New types of institutions are necessary, based on new local identities: of place, gender, faith, culture—indeed, almost any authentic local identity, has the potential to reshape the world. But first, it needs opportunities for expression.
At their best, the arts discover, recognize, and give voice. Devised theatre does this in the context of place, where it will increasingly count the most.
Ferdinand Lewis teaches in the Public Art Studies Program at the University of Southern California’s School of Fine Arts, and is an Irvine Doctoral Fellow at USC’s School of Policy, Planning and Development, where he teaches and studies urban planning. He was on the faculties of the Theater School and Interdisciplinary Studies Program at California Institute of the Arts between 1992 and 2001. He has written about ensemble and community-based theatre, the arts, and entertainment for a variety of journals, magazines, newspapers, and websites.