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  • An Approach to Auditions for Devised Theatre
  • Rich Brown (bio)

Without a script from which to begin, auditions often represent the first major obstacle to devising new work. What good, for instance, are two contrasting monologues when you do not yet have any characters? Here is where the devising process affords an opportunity for an entirely new approach to auditions. Hinged on the belief that the company comprises the primary resource for any devised play, this “Note from the Field” offers the audition process for devised works created for MainStage seasons at Western Washington University (WWU) as a model.

WWU’s Devising Process

At WWU we define devising as a process of collaboratively creating new theatre. The company creates an original script, and the creators are also the performers. A new play is devised every other year, with the devising process lasting, usually, for approximately one year. At the end of spring quarter, the company is auditioned and sent away with piles of source material to investigate over the summer. The following fall, students return to enroll in “THTR 480: Devising Production.” This class meets twice weekly for six hours of contact time during a ten-week quarter. WWU’s devising process includes five phases: research, creation, development, rehearsal, and performance. Each phase, except performance, lasts approximately five weeks. The fall class encompasses the research and creation phases. During the first five weeks of winter quarter, the development phase occurs during evening workshops. During spring quarter, five weeks from opening night, the rehearsal phase begins. Performances usually occur in late May or early June. With some minor variations, this process has been developed through the creation of five devised works over the past six years: cheat (2009), US (2011), The American Family (2012),1 Soapbox (2013), and /faust (2015).

Open-Call Auditions

As mentioned above, unless you are adapting from a preexisting text, characters do not yet exist (and even then the characters may not yet be fully defined). Thus casting is a particular challenge, especially so when casting year-long collaborators; therefore the focus must shift from simply casting actors to casting a devising company. Consequently, the audition notice must clearly communicate expectations of time and work commitment, as well as the focus of the piece—the “hunch” that launches the process of investigation. In the WWU devising process, the term hunch is borrowed from Moisés Kaufman, the artistic director of Tectonic Theater Project, who defines it as “something you know before you know that you know it.” The following hunch was part of the audition notice for US, which garnered three national awards for devising from the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival:

I’m interested in Robert Frank and Jack Kerouac, working through completely different mediums and unbeknownst to one another, traveling thousands of miles to discover “what does it mean to be an American?” I’m interested in what that question meant fifty years ago, and in researching and exploring these artists’ lives in order to form a fictional narrative frame in which to investigate [End Page 249] how that question resonates today. I’m interested in creating characters from photographs, in exploring the audience–performer relationship through direct address, and in working with a diverse range of artists—writers, musicians, photographers, dancers, actors, and designers.

The hunch draws artists together into a process to unpack it, but first, the lead deviser must select the company of collaborators. Our open auditions invite auditioners to select two pieces of source material by employing a chance element. For example, in the production of US, two weeks before auditions, students drew a short piece of Kerouac’s poetry from one large envelope, and one photograph from Frank’s The Americans from a second. They then used this source material to generate an original three-minute piece for their audition. The audition notice stated: “Your audition should express your personal reaction to the source prompts, your feel for structure and rhythm, your presence and ability to engage an audience. Any and all performance talents should be highlighted.”

At the audition, students handed in their prompts. My first task was to watch for their ability to connect the source...


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pp. 249-254
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