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Theatre Topics 15.1 (2005) 91-102

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Potholes in the Road to Devising

There is no art without resistance from the medium.
—Raymond Chandler

Every artistic process involves difficulty and risk, and devising has its own set of challenges. The playwright faces the problem of the blank page; with group devising, the problem is compounded by the number of opinions about how to fill it. Whether a particular collaborative process is based on harmony or on enthusiastic contention, there is no guarantee that the best ideas will emerge when the smoke has cleared or that the simultaneous contributions of numbers of people can unite in a work of power and vision.

In the American nonprofit institutional theatre, devising is rare because it's risky and the outcome is so unsure. Development time must be financed and in the regional theatre there are severe limits on rehearsal time. Outside of existing ensembles that regularly devise their work, it seems that one-off devising collaborations among mature artists in the US are attempted infrequently or with great caution, since money, reputation, and visibility raise the stakes of devised work. The viewpoint of a mature artist may carry with it stronger opinions, less of a youthful "let's see what happens" attitude, and reluctance to compromise personal artistic ideals.

Having devised and taught devising for many years, I bring to the topic broad personal experience with its difficulties as well as its joys. Devising generally takes us off the beaten path, where we may encounter ruts, potholes, mysterious cul-de-sacs, and wilderness areas. This essay describes some of those difficulties and offers tips for making the road less bumpy, the promised vistas more glorious.

Ground Rules for Devising

When collaborations are attempted, there is a greater chance of success if the group establishes and adheres to basic guidelines for working together. Collaborative principles encourage artists to develop trust and respect, come to a common understanding of the challenge, and to be clear about intention, roles, and agendas. By creating a shared space, generating and manipulating models, and using outside resources and strategies, the capacity for making decisions is expanded.

Credos and manifestoes are often adopted at the beginning of a project as a way of hanging a banner of ideals and intentions. Writer Betty Comden recalls that when she, Adolph Green, Leonard Bernstein, and Jerome Robbins gathered [End Page 91] to devise On The Town in 1944, their first step was to make a credo: "The work must have a unity, the songs must come out of the action, and nothing pretentious." Peter Buckley, a former Dell'Arte School Director, continually exhorted students to make agreements before starting to work.1 Sometimes, however, credos must be made midway in a collaborative process in order to head off physical violence. I know of more than one group of devisers whose partnership ended around a mediation table. Our own company sought out the services of a family counselor during our tenth anniversary production; we subsequently developed "rules of civility" for our future devising projects.

The following Collaborators' Agreement was forged in 1994 by a quartet of theatre artists who came together to devise a new jazz opera based on a well-known classic theatre text. The composer, two playwrights, and the artistic director of the producing regional theater were mature artists with national reputations, the proposal had foundation funding, and it seemed like a dream project. Yet the stress of deadlines, lack of clear agreement over how the collaborative process might actually work, and aesthetic differences nearly scuttled the production. A rescue attempt was made through drafting the Collaborators' Agreement:

We agree that we respect each other as artists and as people. We agree to show that respect in word and action.

We agree that our intention is to help each other to do the best work possible.

We agree that our intention is to support each other's creativity.

We agree to respect each other's scheduled rehearsal time. We agree not to disturb each other's rehearsals.

We agree to send messages and...


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