In the last few weeks I have watched a number of ensemble based theatre pieces developed through a devising process in the burgeoning Galway Theatre Festival and whîlst I have a whole number of responses and questions to consider with regard to these pieces, developed by groups at all different stages of development, I want to focus on one or two aspects of these productions, primarily concerning composition and its importance in making a real contact with audiences.
In order to explain this further I suppose I need to just go over what that Michael Chekhov term means, though the name composition is on the surface pretty self explanatory. Composition involves the idea of beginning middle and end. This is not peculiar to Chekhov and has been around for centuries; that a work of art has a ‘feeling of the whole’, like a painting has a frame, and this is important for the audience. This is not to say that life appears always to have that structure, though in the wider sense it does. In the words of Helmut Berger in some woeful 70s movie I saw he said “you live, you fuck, you die” , reminding us that even we have a beginning, middle and an end. We understand this organically as people and respond to it in art. These stages in a work of art are vital to what we want to say, and how we are going to say it. When I say this I do not mean that a piece has to have a happy ending or we cannot leave things open; but, if we do, as artists we have to know what the purpose is , what responses we might want to invoke in our audiences and be honest with ourselves as to whether it is successful.
In the last few devised pieces I have seen there have been issues with really successfully making that form, either because it was not desirable or simply overlooked as unimportant. In the Brokentalkers production THE BLUE BOY which I saw recently, the piece seemed to have ending after ending, emphasising the fact that the piece was over long and did not know where to settle. Many endings suggest no ending, and for me, drain the emotion from the piece. It left me ultimately as an audience member feeling, ‘well is that it?’ As this was a piece about child abuse in Irish industrial schools, this was a very unsatisfactory feeling to be left with. Sometimes I think it is the devising process itself that’s to blame. Authors have customarily a problem with editing their own work, and when this also might mean cutting ‘a good scene’ either for yourself or someone else, then editing can difficult. Add to the fact you have an ensemble of co-creating authors, finding an ending can be problematic.
But then there are also beginnings; the BLUE BOY and another piece MY POET DARK AND SLENDER opted for a fairly casual ‘sliding in’ to the piece , a kind of ‘we are just actors talking’. It’s a device which was used a lot in the 60s and 70s. it establishes a different sort of contact with the audience but is also dangerous because it prepares the audience for less energy ,less commitment and less involvement. Though more successful in the Brokentalkers show through the charisma and focus of the first performer who spoke, and the feeling for me that this low key energy was a preparation for where they were going to take us, generally this kind of approach is not a beginning, but an apology.
Indeed in some cases, this ‘sliding in’ can appear like a ‘screw you,’ to the audience ,’we can do what we want’. I saw a production of The Cherry Orchard done in last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival by a company from Belgium called STAN. I have a piece about it on the blog called Selling The Cherry Orchard With Stan . In that case, for me, the effect was worse, because they were doing The Cherry Orchard and it prepared us for the fact they would do what they liked with it, which I was expecting in any case, and so the opening was, well, juvenile.
In any case, if you are going to call this ‘sliding in’ a beginning, you need to be very clear about what you are doing and the intention you have in preparing your relationship with the audience. Why deprive me the audience of an interesting start to a piece to prepare and involve myself with the work and what the artists are trying to say? What is the purpose? If the purpose is good, and what you as the devisers are really committed to, then fine. If not, well the news is, devising has as many cliches as any art form.
Which brings me to a devised work in development called STREET , which was about poverty and subsidy and being an out of work actor. I made a very strong connection to this piece for two reasons initially. I knew and have had many of these actors in my classes over the decades I have been teaching, and have directed some of them as adults. Secondly, as someone who has acted myself, I knew all too well the problems they were facing. What clinched it for me though was the work was emotional and raw and really reached out to the audience. They radiated their commitment. Yet it was not overblown, just open. I felt it cost people to ‘go there,’ and felt the potential of a piece which tackled why theatre was important, partly because the problems the artists face are so universal these days, with the eroding of employees rights for all walks of life . As we just watched pieces of this show and this was very much ‘in development’ ,there was no structure to consider , but I was excited to see where this piece might go.
The piece which for me was most successful though, was CARE performed by WillFred. It was literally about endings. The piece, about how hospice workers care for dying patients was incredibly moving and for me embodied a deep understanding of theatricality. The person we followed who was dying was in fact a mannequin, a brilliant device, because as I sat watching the show it made me think of all the people I had known who had been ill and died. It left me imaginatively free to fully engage my emotions. There was beautiful live music to go with this work. This show has survived the original devisers but amazingly you would never notice this, such was the commitment and skilful direction. Like many of the other pieces I saw it was very factual but there was an incredible unforced imaginative element, which BLUE BOY for me did not have. In comparison, The Blue Boy for me wore its art on its sleeve which obfuscated rather than illuminated.
Because we followed our dying person, CARE had a strong ‘feeling of the whole’ despite the fact that all manner of means were employed to tell the story. If I had any qualms it was a little stronger vocal delivery ( a common problem in devising work), and perhaps a scene where one of the nurses could not cope with the stresses of the work. A small complaint, when I emerged from the theatre so moved.
I have a response to this (I also saw some of these productions and would agree about CARE being well done) but it will take a little time and I am busy right now. I want to relate Theatre to Gunn’s “occasions of poetry” and to writing prose. In the novel sometimes a beginning middle and end is called “the plot”: does real life have a plot? And why is “authenticity” (Gunn’s word) so important? And what of the scourge of the “post dramatic” ? Has anyone else any thoughts on this?