Category Archives: Guardian Online Posts

Devised theatre: ten tips for a truly creative collaboration

(Originally published on The Guardian’s Culture Professional Network)

Britain may lay claim to some of the world’s greatest dramatists, but solitary scribbling isn’t the only way to create theatre. “Devising” is a process in which the whole creative team develops a show collaboratively. From actors to technicians, everyone is involved in the creative process. Since the pioneering Oh What a Lovely War, some of theatre’s most exciting productions have been made this way.

It’s both an exhilarating and terrifying way to work. I love the challenge of creating a show from scratch, but with this freedom comes a significant catch: there’s no script; no safety net. I’ve spent most of the past decade walking this tightrope. From shows that have ended up touring nationally to flops I’d rather forget, here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way.

Be passionate about your source material

It might be a story you love, an injustice that enrages you or a question you can’t stop asking – just make sure you’ve chosen a starting point that fascinates you. This curiosity will keep you alive to new possibilities, make you fearless when things get tough, and ensure you’re always digging deeper.

If you don’t care, why should an audience?

Do your research

The more you know about your starting material, the freer your imagination will be within it. Research nourishes rehearsals, provides a huge wealth of material from which to devise, and gives authenticity to your final production. The latter is important; if an audience questions the world you create, it’s almost impossible for them to relax into the fantasies you’re weaving. Of course, if you’re creating a clown show, ignore all the above; ignorance will be bliss.

Get your material out there as soon as possible

Nothing gets me off my backside like the prospect of public humiliation. Without the pressure of a reading or work-in-progress night, I wouldn’t create anything. Early previews will stop you over-thinking, get you creating, allow you to test material and (hopefully) build a buzz for the show. If premature exposure sounds too terrifying, you can always invite supportive friends into your rehearsals.

Unite the whole company around a common purpose

Set aside some time early on to explore everyone’s personal objectives for making the piece. Then, as an ensemble, write a unified mission statement for the show. This might range from explicitly political aims to simply wanting to create a joyous evening of fun – it might even change as the project moves forward. It will provide an essential framework against which you can judge every decision you make and ensures that everyone is travelling in the same direction.

Keep an open mind

Few things will choke creativity more than your brainy ideas about what you think will work. Admit that you know nothing, keep an open mind and listen attentively to the people with whom you’re working. The smallest comments can spark Eureka moments, and there really is no such thing as a bad idea. Some of my favourite scenes were inspired by tiny glimmers in otherwise awful improvisations. It’s often the most disastrous rehearsals that tell me where I’m going wrong. As long as you’re venturing into the unknown, there’s no such thing as failure.

The importance of story is relative

Some people swear that story is everything, but it really depends on the show. If I’m adapting a pre-existing narrative, story will undoubtedly be high on my priorities. But sometimes it will only emerge once we start connecting the material we’ve made. In comedy, it’s often just a framework from which to hang the gags. What’s certainly true is that an early obsession with plot will close you off from many discoveries.

Always look for counterpoints

If your subject matter is serious, look for the moments of humour. If you’re doing comedy, remember that it’s probably not funny for the characters involved. Similarly, don’t get stuck in endless dialogue; the way you tell a story through action, movement, music, design, sound and lighting is just as important as the words.

Everyone works differently

Devising doesn’t have to mean endless improvisations. Let people create material in whichever way works best for them. Some of the best scenes will come when people are just given time to go home and write.

Don’t be precious

Throw away your rehearsal plans if they’re not helping, give your best jokes to another actor, consider moving your final scene to the start, simplify the plot-line, and mercilessly edit your show to the shortest length possible. I’ve never regretted any cuts or changes I’ve made to a show; getting the rhythm right trumps everything.

Stay optimistic and enjoy yourselves

Things will inevitably go wrong, but remember to keep looking for the joy and inspiration to create. Stuck in a hole? Play a silly game or get outside and do something fun. You’d be surprised how many good ideas come when you’re not trying.

Advertisements

Fol Espoir featured in The Guardian

Artistic Director John Walton was invited to contribute a post to the Guardian Professionals Blog. The theme was the research process and post-show discussion for the show Winston On the Run. Full text below, or check it out at:

http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2013/oct/11/post-show-theatre-discussions

Post-show theatre discussions: presenting your ‘DVD extras’ menu

Performance post shows are usually dull and dominated by the same old questions – so how can you create one that’s fun?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            If I told you that Winston Churchill had once been a svelte, dashing young cavalry officer with a ruff of red hair, a penchant for dangerous adventures and a lisp, would you believe me? For my generation at least, it’s difficult to imagine him as anyone other than a demigod of history textbooks, chomping on a cigar and making zero contribution to the nation’s hairbrush industry.

When I teamed up with the writer and actor Freddie Machin, we knew that Churchill’s little-known early adventures were ripe for theatrical adaptation. But how do you start researching someone about whom enough material already exists to fill several libraries? And how do you condense that material into an evening of lively entertainment?

The first thing we realised is that no human being could ever read everything written by or about Churchill – we were going to have to set limits. The second thing we needed to decide was what story we wanted to tell. Again, setting limits became key. Unimpressed by the meandering treatment of Churchill’s boyhood and military career in the 1972 filmYoung Winston, we decided to focus on the episode of his life that ultimately led to his first parliamentary victory – his daring escape from the South African Boers.

At this point, our aim was to write a Flashman-style parody of colonial aspirations and hot-headed youth. The research was pointing us in an entirely different direction, though. We were becoming entranced by the sheer complexity of Churchill’s personality: from an early age he was inspiring, courageous, persistent and witty; yet also arrogant, impulsive, erratic and riddled with insecurity. We realised that these qualities were also the reasons for his future successes and failures. Here was an episode through which his entire life could be distilled, and it was too fascinating an opportunity to pass up.

The format that we eventually came up with was a 65-minute show followed by an integral post-show presentation. The “post show” gets really bad press, and we’ve been at plenty of bad ones ourselves. Too often they are dull, poorly executed and dominated by the same old questions, like “how do you learn your lines?”

Often the performers don’t even want to be there, and I’ll never forget an RSC actor telling us all off for not laughing enough in a lamentably unfunny first half. Freddie and I were sure that with a bit of imagination we could come up with something that was fun, structured, visually rich and that would allow the audience to lead the conversation.

What we ended up creating was our own DVD “extras” menu that we project onto the stage. Audience members can choose from topics like “The Greasy Spoon” – about the working relationship Freddie and I developed, rooted in our local cafe; to topics like “Behind the Legend”, which explores original archive material; or “True or False”, a quiz based on Churchill’s early life. Each topic comes with photos, discussion from Freddie, and an opportunity for the audience to share thoughts or ask questions.

What we’ve discovered is that a post-show talk can add immensely to both the audience and performer’s experience of a production. Audience members love getting a look behind normally closed rehearsal room doors. In return, they have shared some amazing memories. One audience member’s father had worked as Churchill’s private secretary and had spent summers playing in the grounds of Chartwell; another could still recall Churchill’s visit to their local village.

We’ve even been invited to visit places like Ditchley Park, where Churchill had close connections, and the conversations have often continued into the theatre’s bar long afterwards. For us, it’s been a exciting way to make connections with our audience, which is, in the end, what storytelling is all about.