- Devising in Process
Devising in Process is a welcome introductory examination of eight contemporary British theatre companies that create devised performance. This accessible and concise collection of essays, edited by Alex Mermikides and Jackie Smart, presents valuable insights into the vibrancy of alternative British theatre. These insights derive in part from the fact that the book’s contributors were embedded within their focus companies to observe their devising of [End Page 304] specific performance projects. This unusual access to the unique, often long and idiosyncratic process of devising performance brings immediacy to an obscure and sometimes misunderstood subject.
A comprehensive introduction provides an overview of devised performance in Britain, placing it in relation to conventional theatre and performance art and situating it within its historical and political context. As the editors discuss, devising rejects conventional theatre for subjecting audience and practitioner alike to the ideology of the dominant culture that it naturalizes through its frequent use of a realist aesthetic. Devising, by contrast, seeks to “emancipat[e] the practitioner (most usually the performer) from the ‘tyranny’ inherent in ‘mainstream’ practices” (11). Yet, unlike performance art, it also refuses the cult of the lone genius, contesting not only “the authority of text [but also that] of the individual creative artist—and, by implication, any suggestion of a singular ‘truth’” (6). Such “truths,” it suggests, are always ideological, whether shaped by the Right, such as the Thatcher government of the 1980s when many of these groups were founded, or the Left-centrist Labor governments that followed.
Having outlined a shared political context and aesthetic rationale, the introduction establishes important threads to link the otherwise potentially unwieldy array of companies, practitioners, and performances profiled in the book. The editors show, for example, that practical and operational concerns—such as company structures, roles, and relationships, as well as external factors like funding, time constraints, space, and schedules—affect all aspects of the creative process as well as the artistic objectives of devised work. With the book’s framework thus in place, the succeeding chapters consider specific devised performances by individual groups.
The People Show, for example, was formed in 1966 and is often cited as the United Kingdom’s longest-standing devising company. To date, it has created 119 original performances, which are numbered and then subtitled. Synne Behrndt’s essay documents People Show #118: The Birthday Tour, which, like much of the group’s work, was structured around a “collage of atmospheres rather than narrative or character” (34). As Berhndt explains, The People Show prefers to start from a “visual point of view” (35) and a loose and malleable method of working to guarantee that there is no single, typical devising process or method for the company. Beginning with associated images and ideas that are then “embroidered” (36) with bodies, actions, text, and the performers’ reactions, the group encourages its performers to bring their interpersonal relationships to the process, pushing the work into uncharted, highly personal, and ultimately risky terrain.
Station House Opera, the company that Jem Kelly considers in chapter 2, is known for its “telematic” performances that put performers and audiences in a shared virtual, worldwide space. Its piece The Other Is You strove to create a “condition of telepresence that allows you to take your body . . . into some other environment” (55). Featuring three spaces—a basement in Brighton, a school in Groningen, and a café in Berlin—it invited audiences to inhabit them either literally or virtually, while creating a fourth imaginary space out of connections among them. Such connections were cued by visual similarities among gestural signs, task-based actions, costumes, or the spatial arrangement of objects with which the audience was required to interact.
In the third chapter, Tim Moss profiles Faulty Optic’s performance of Dead Wedding, which drew on Darwin’s theory of evolution and chaos theory to demonstrate how chance foments instability, disrupting usual patterns to create a new order. Starting with a “creative pond” (83) stocked with ideas, images, and actions, the company fished the generative associations spawned from this random mix, tracing...