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Theatre Topics 15.1 (2005) 121-125
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Book Reviews—A Devising Library
Devising theatre, or creating work collaboratively without the guidance of a pre-existing script, may be taken up for a variety of reasons. Among a host of other possibilities, devising offers theatre artists opportunities to explore issues of personal or local importance; to experiment with stylistic or thematic modes of expression; or to work collectively to make pieces in which all company members have a voice. Working to create theatre from scratch also presents certain challenges, including those of finding working methods that serve the company's artistic goals; establishing productive decision-making procedures in groups in which traditional theatrical hierarchies may have been eliminated or modified; and learning to contribute to various developmental processes through which an initial idea finds its staged expression. Under discussion here are several works that directly address the opportunities and challenges of devising by focusing on the processes that different groups have used to create their own work, as well as several suggestions for further research on different aspects of devising.
In Devising Theatre: A Practical and Theoretical Handbook, Alison Oddey, a British educator and artist who has been devising theatre since 1977, acknowledges the difficulty of creating a comprehensive study of devised work, observing that "the uniqueness of process and product for every group concerned" is what distinguishes devised performances from those more conventionally structured around a pre-existing dramatic text (2). Still, the scope of her book is admirable. Mindful of the enormous variety, both stylistic and thematic, of devised theatre, Oddey takes pains to explore a full range of variables at play within devising companies and their creative processes.
The major portion of the book develops what Oddey describes as "a general theory of devising theatre" (xi). For examples, she draws here upon the work of a number of groups that were actively devising performances in Great Britain in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Devising Theatre was first published in 1994). Oddey is sensitive to relationships between the structures employed by different companies, the various group devising processes that arise within those structures, and the kinds of theatre that these devising processes ultimately produce. "When considering a range of devised theatre products," she observes, "it is clear that they are the result of how a company combines a variety of processes from its particular structure of operation" (105). Oddey examines company leadership and explores ways in which particular divisions of theatrical labor affect a group's artistic process. One of Oddey's case studies is the democratically organized People Show, a group of visual artists that does not use a director. Company members contribute in multiple ways to the People Show's productions and are responsible for design and set construction as well as performance. Oddey contrasts the People Show's collective organization with Lumiere & Son, a company that vests its leadership in its artistic director, Hillary Westlake. Westlake serves as the group's artistic [End Page 121] arbiter, and Oddey explores the roles that other specialized artistic personnel, such as writer, technical director, and composer, play within Lumiere & Son's hierarchical structure.
Oddey considers devising groups...