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. Continue reading