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Theatre Topics 15.1 (2005) 73-86

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Devising Utopia, or Asking for the Moon

My intention is to make images into theater events, beginning simply with those which have meaning for myself and my collaborators; and at the same time renouncing the theater of critics, box office, real estate, and the conditioned public.
—Joseph Chaikin, The Presence of the Actor

The Legacy of Devising

The increasingly widespread usage in American theatre departments of the enigmatic catch-word "devising" points to the gradual legitimization within the academy of alternative artistic approaches first developed in the 1960s. Given the intentionally transgressive nature of these approaches, pioneered by groups such as The Open Theatre, The Living Theatre, and the Bread and Puppet Theatre, their integration into the curriculum raises the question of whether they will eventually disrupt canonical conceptions of theatre and thereby affect the future of the discipline.

Of course, the transgressive stance of avant-garde theatre, as defined by Philip Auslander in From Acting to Performance, has, to a certain extent, been assimilated by the canon, so that it no longer poses an actual threat to institutions. However, Auslander argues that the transformative nature of performance is still at work in today's devised theatre, albeit in different ways. Indeed, he posits that while the object of the collaborative experiments of the '60s was confrontation with authority through the creation of a "counter-culture," a critical shift from modernist transgression to postmodernist resistance has since taken place. Citing the Wooster Group's incorporation of scenes from Arthur Miller's play The Crucible into the textual montage the group created for the production of LSD, Auslander remarks that the ensuing conflict with Miller over the rights was "a result, not the object, of the Wooster Group's process" (71–2). Auslander suggests that this process entailed "simultaneously occupying and resisting the given structure of textual authority [. . .] in traditional theatre" (66), thereby contending that what distinguishes this type of appropriation from "a confrontational, avant-gardist gesture" is precisely its "unintentional character" (71). Agreeing with artistic director Elizabeth LeCompte that Miller's legal action against the theatre company, which eventually resulted in the closing of the production, was "an inevitable outcome of the Wooster Group's working process" (71), Auslander foregrounds the potentially utopian dimension of this process by pointing out that its effect "is not so much to question Miller's rights over his text as to show what would be possible in the realm of cultural production if those rights were not in force, thus emphasizing the connection between [End Page 73] the cultural and the social/political" (72). Unlike the transgressive devised theatre of the '60s, postmodern devised theatre does not claim to position itself outside dominant cultural formations, but seeks to offer "strategies of counterhegemonic resistance by exposing processes of cultural control and emphasizing the traces of nonhegemonic discourses within the dominant" (61). From such a perspective, the aim of devising is no longer to storm the imposing edifice of the theatrical canon, but to open a window in the wall of the fortress so as "to provide a glimpse of what lies beyond it" (72).

In light of this analysis, I would submit that the concept of devising challenges the very principles that define institutionalized theatre practices, from actor training to production strategies. The "danger" inherent in devising resides not so much in failing to produce a successful theatre piece—a risk that also pertains to more conventional approaches—but in the expectations that devising generates in those who engage in it. Indeed, the participatory, process-oriented, and nonhierarchical nature of devising calls into question both the pedagogy of theatre education and the criteria by which one evaluates what constitutes "good" theatre. However, isn't this precisely what makes the notion of devising so irresistibly promising? For devising compels us, in spite of Western culture's obsession with productivity, to pay closer attention to process. Moreover, it defies yet another culturally specific trait—our privileging of discursive reason over embodied knowledge—by inviting Euro-American theatre scholars, practitioners, and...


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