Why devised theatre is hard

Three women applying lipsitck in mirror
Skolka (later retitled Ulov), a play about Russian mail-order brides, was an outstanding piece of devised theatre. Sadly, this is the very much the exception.

One thing I kept bemoaning in my roundups of this year’s Brighton. Buxton and Edinburgh Fringes was the number of poor and mediocre pieces of devised theatre. This is a blog for things that are good, so I won’t name and shame examples, but the same mistakes keep being made. The definition of devised theatre is a bit vague, but what I mean by devised theatre is a production where there is no writer and usually no director. Instead, the play is jointly put together by a collaboration of the actors.

There are two things I can say are good about the devised theatre I’ve seen at Fringes. The first thing that has consistently impressed me  is just how slick and how well choreographed these things are, from the fully professional right down to the student productions. With so many theatres terrified of anything in the slightest bit unconventional, it just goes to show what you can achieve when you are adventurous with movement. And the other thing that impresses me is the great ideas that these plays have as their subject matter. But sadly, these great ideas almost always fail to live up to their potential. In the majority of cases, there is little or nothing about the devised play I found memorable. Now, I am perhaps one of the harsher judges of devised theatre – other reviewers are more accommodating than me, possibly giving the benefit of the doubt of a work in progress. But I don’t make allowances for that and I expect devised theatre to be as good as conventional productions with a script and a director.

So why do I keep going to devised theatre if I’m so cynical about it? Is it because I didn’t know it was devised theatre when I bought the ticket? Do I only realise when I’m in the theatre and it’s too late? Strangely enough, no. The real reason I keep giving devised theatre chance after chance is that, on the rare occasion when devised theatre turns out well, it is outstanding. Even some of the most famous plays were the product of devised theatre once. Abigail’s Party is one of the most famous examples. That was once a project where Mike Leigh gave five actors different characters, threw them into a situation and waited to see what became of it – and the rest is history.

So how can you end with with an Abigail’s Party and not a Dreary Unmemorable Fringe Production #3895? I don’t do devised theatre myself, so I can’t claim to have any first-hand experience of what goes right or wrong. But I’ve seen enough pieces to develop some theories of what can go wrong, together with some suggestions for how this might be avoided.

8 easy ways devised theatre can go wrong

I have a theory for why so many people choose to go down the devised theatre route: it removes a lot of the stress and pressure from one or two people. Festival fringes quite merciless to bad performances – and if you were the writer or director, you get it in the neck. In devised theatre, where responsibility is shared out amongst the whole cast, no single person gets set up as a fall guy. Also, even if devised theatre doesn’t go down well, you can still earn brownie point for being innovative.

But whilst it might be easy to embark of a devised theatre project, doing a good job of it is tough. Without a writer and director to call the shots, there are so many things stacked against you. Based on my observations of numerous sub-standard pieces of devised theatre, here is my list of what I think most easily goes wrong:

1) Anything that can go wrong in conventional writing: I’ve previously written my list of 10 common beginners’ mistakes in playwriting. That was mainly written in the context of the traditional write-first-rehearse-later approach, but it applies to devised theatre. Unfortunately, it’s doubly difficult to avoid this in devised theatre because of …

2) Difficulty spotting what’s going wrong: As I’ve said in that article. Half of the skill in avoiding the common mistakes in playwriting is to identify when you’re making these mistakes in the first place – and that’s not easy. An experienced writer ought to have a good eye for spotting the weaknesses in the script and putting them right. That’s much less likely if the script is being put together by a group of actors with little writing experience between them.

3) Lack of story: Probably the most frequent fault I’ve found with devised theatre is that the play does not have any recognisable story or structure to it – it is merely a mish-mash of scenes with a similar theme. Without a writer to plan a beginning, a middle, and end, and all plots and sub-plots in between, a devised theatre group has to work very hard to compensate for this.

4) Ideas that don’t work out: This is perhaps one of the saddest aspects of devised theatre. You know I said that I’ve been impressed with the ideas that groups come up with for devised theatre? Tragically, an idea alone is not enough. You need a plan for how to make your idea work as a whole play. Often in devised theatre, what started as very promising idea peters out after 15 minutes into something with no clear direction. Devised theatre is not alone in doing this, but in conventional theatre, there is a reason why conventional writing is less prone to this.

5) Hard to stop once you’ve started: One sound piece of advice I’d give to any writer is to never force an idea that isn’t working out. Painful though it may be to throw away a half-completed script (or even a fully-completed script), it’s better to start again with a fresh idea than embark on a doomed production. But that only works for conventional theatre. If you’re doing a devised piece, the first time you may discover something is fundamentally wrong with your play is halfway through the rehearsal period. By then, it’s probably too late to call the whole thing off.

6) Inconsistent characters: A good way of ruining a play is to make your characters do implausible things for the sake of the plot. It’s a mistake plenty of conventional writers make, but devised theatre makes this mistake even easier. The problem is that if you’ve different people devising different stories for their own characters, you can get unstuck when you try to put them together. If character A needs character B to do C in order for character A’s story to work, but character B’s story establishes character B as someone who’d never do C, you are in trouble.

7) Forgetting your audience: I know many writers claim that they don’t pander to commercial expectations, but deep inside all writers want their audience to love their work. So any semi-competent writer will be thinking carefully about how their audience will perceive their play. Any semi-competent devised theatre company should be doing the same – but if you’re not careful you can end up acting for the benefit of each other, whilst your audience wonders what the hell this is supposed to be.

8) Lack of critical oversight: This last one is a bit more complicated to explain than the others, but this is the most important one. I could also describe this as the “horse-trading” problem. The scenario I suspect happens a lot goes like this: the actors in the company have all come up with bits of script they are proud of. But then comes the task of clearing out the deadwood and cutting the bits of the script that aren’t working out. It’s easier for a writer to do this – if there’s anything you’re determined must stay in the script, it can stay. But what about when you’re part of a team. What if the rest of the cast doesn’t like your baby and says your favourite bit has to go? If everyone feels the same, there’s an easy defence: don’t criticise other people’s contributions, and they won’t criticise yours. That way everyone gets to keep their favourite bits in the play and everyone’s happy. Except the audience. And the reviewers. And the cast once they read the reviews.

As I said, this is just my list as an outsider. There are probably numerous other ways things can go wrong – that is a risk that comes with the territory of having everyone jointly in charge. Safeguarding against these risks, however, is no easy task. It’s no use having a checklist of 101 mistakes not to make in devised theatre, because I refer you back to point 2 – it’s not easy to identify mistakes you are making. No, if you want to avoid these mistakes, I think it’s all about the approach you take.

5 not-so-easy ways to make devised theatre go right

So there’s no shortage of ways for things to go wrong. And yet, when it goes right, it can be outstanding. What’s the secret? I wouldn’t claim to know the answer. But based on successes I’ve seen, I think the following things may help – and none of them are quick fixes:

1) The not-really-devised-theatre-at-all solution: Simplest way to stop all the problems of group management and indecision – don’t give power away. A lot of plays that claim to be devised theatre don’t really qualify as that. A writer and/or director remains in charge, with a fairly clear artistic vision of what they want to achieve. The actors may act out improvised situations, but it’s up to the writer to decide on an end product. That was how Abigail’s Party came into being (something amdram groups ought to consider before slavishly sticking to the script of the play with no spontaneity). Some might argue that’s it’s not devised theatre, and it loses the originality from several people collaborating on an idea. But, hey, it’s only terminology, and if this approach gives you a hit, who cares?

2) The dramaturg solution: The other common solution to the lack of direction from devised theatre is to make use of a dramaturg. How this works may vary from case to case, but the general idea is that the dramaturg gets involved afert everyone have pooled their ideas, and uses his/her experience to turn this into a working play. In theory, this can do the job well – and as some people make a living as dramaturgs, they must be doing something right. But be careful – you might not like this. This theory hinges on the dramaturg being competent – if your dramaturg removes all the good bits and makes your work-in-progress worse, it might be too late when you realise you’ve got an incompetent dramaturg. Or maybe your dramaturg knows exactly what he/she is doing, but half the cast decide otherwise when their favourite bits are filleted. My advise is that if you go down this route, try to work with someone you know and trust. Because trust is very important if you’re doing it that way.

3) The solo performance collaboration solution: Another way of getting round the group decision problem is to give everyone their own character and develop their own story. It’s basically the same as developing a solo piece, except that there’s several of them and you provide the supporting characters for each other’s stories. Provided you are all capable of developing decent stories, this can work quite well. Just make sure you don’t make mistake #6 above in the process. (Skolka, pictured above, largely worked that way. The main part of this play was the back-stories of the three women wanting to be mail order brides, showing what they were getting away from. That’s a simplified description, but it worked very well.)

4) The test audience solution: If it’s hard to predict how an audience will react to devised theatre, you can simply go ahead, show it to an audience, and see what happens. You still run the risk of a flop, but if you’re thinking of taking it to, say, the Edinburgh Fringe, you probably want to find that out in advance. Or, if the play does okay, you can find out from the audience what they liked and what they didn’t like, what they got and what they didn’t get, and refine it for next time. This is quite a good method provided you do it properly. If your reaction to any kind of critical feedback is to blame the audience for not understanding the play, that kind of defeats the object. But beware also of unreserved praise. Audiences tend to be kind and supportive to people trying out anything new – but this means they might not give constructive criticism when you need it. The same play that went down so well in the upstairs room of a local pub could still bomb against the tougher competition of the festival fringes.

5) The hardest but ultimately most effective solution: I’ve save the best solution for last. And, unfortunately, it’s also the hardest solution. In my opinion, your best chance to succeed in devised theatre is to be part of a group who has worked together for years, knows each other’s strengths and weaknesses, knows how to act with each other, and – most important of all – knows each other well enough to be able to point out each other’s mistakes without falling out over it. Needless to say, that’s far easier said than done. This, I think, is why the best pieces of devised theatre I’ve seen are by drama school graduates. As well as having years to work together, they’ve also had endless chances to improvise acting out of various situations. I don’t believe in telling people without professional training that they shouldn’t attempt certain kinds of theatre, but when it comes to devised theatre, the drama graduates are at huge advantage. Everyone else has a lot of catching up to do.

Is this going to be of any help to someone hoping to producing a devised theatre smash hit? I doubt it. The mistakes are easy to make, and hard to avoid, and the most effective way of getting devised theatre to work is as far removed from a quick fix as can be. But will this put people off doing devised theatre? I hope not. Because, for all the disappointments, it’s the successes that make it worth it. If this is what you want to to, go ahead and do it – just be aware how much of a challenge it is.


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