After seeing a devised piece by students the other night , I was prompted to ask a question of the performers, that I never asked during the Q and A as time ran out. The piece was lively and varied and reminded me of many devised pieces I have facilitated in the same college, the myriad pieces I have worked on in youth theatres and in National Youth Theatre Ireland festivals of Youth Drama .
I wanted to ask whether the students found the process different and better or worse than working on a play.
Devising is a wonderful thing; making a piece from nothing. It has a long history. In recent times it has been popular with youth theatre, applied drama with non-actors as well as on the professional stage. With devising, actors can initially make almost anything they want; they can own the piece completely as they have joint ownership; they can mix styles and give their piece the flexibility of a piece of music. It gives them a massive buzz and is an invaluable part of theatre education and practise.
However whatever devising model you use, there are restrictions. Whilst the group can explore something emotionally daring, it is very hard to develop certain acting skills within it. The students HAVE to feel safe, and when you are using feelings which are more iðentifiably yours the danger of fully exploring what is going on is riskier. It is difficult in that situation to make them act better, go deeper, because you as the facilitator have no idea what you might be dealing with, hidden beneath the subject matter that they have created. I had this experience myself quite recently with a group and it was a curious realisation that devising and acting skills are not always mutually compatible.
Looking back on my own experience I wondered whether restricting the scope of the material actually helped.
I facilitated a project many years ago on the theme of spirit for a youth theatre festival. The theme was given to us. It was a tricky one. At the end of this project there was to be a public performance and I was much less experienced, afraid we would not be able to make anything presentable in the time frame. I took with me an idea based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead which begins with a wake and then we follow the spirit going off to four levels, to be decided by the group, before leaving to eternity. Eventually the Spirit was released. This structure enabled us to find so many things about ‘what we let go of in death’ ‘ what does it mean to be alive’ that we could never have explored without that structure which I had taken in with me. The structure empowered them; it restricted their freedom a bit but also gave them lots of scope. Unexpectedly, four young actors devised a hilarious strand about four dead grandmothers who sat in an eternal front room, watching their living relatives on telly and supporting and criticising them, until one of them decides it is time to take the journey to departures. Their sections were scripted whereas the others were mainly movement -based ensemble pieces.
But even though we did a lot of things in experiment and discussion, I felt concerned to not push them in terms of their performance especially during the funeral/wake section. I was very gentle. After all I did not know these people and who knew what their relationship was with death? In fact, as it happens, one of the participating facilitators had had a close bereavement in the family and we had to talk about his involvement which was quite a moving story in itself.
The structure enabled us to make something which challenged everyone. Restriction can mean freedom.
In a scripted play though, the actors have the conduit of their character to push their energies. The actors may or may not be like them and especially when working through the Chekhov technique you are never asking them to directly tap into their own experience but to find the feelings and the journey through imagination and the body first. That also allows you through the score of the play to express parts of them they do not show and to encourage them to work with those energies and radiate them to the audience convincingly. The character gives them a safe place because you are never directly working with them or their lives.
This is what I wanted to explore when I didn’t ask the question at the Q and A I mentioned at the start of this piece.
Not long ago I facilitated a devised piece about Ireland with a group. The piece was quite beautiful, but for various reasons, I found it was very difficult for them to express negative feelings about how they felt about the place, and when we started to explore this, some difficult feelings came up. Next time I work with them we are going to work with some scenes from plays as well as devising a piece, so they can work as free authors in their comfort zone and then push the boundaries when they have a structure and are playing someone other than themselves.