Devised Theatre: The Art of the Impossible


Devised theatre? Also known as collaborative creation, original work, or ensemble pieces, among other names, devised theatre is a unique concept to be sure and not easily defined. For the past six months I have been part of Impossible Theater Company’s devising ensemble for [missed connections], and even I have wondered along the way, “What is this?”

Every artistic endeavor has risks and challenges. The playwright faces the blank page. The director and actor face bringing words to life in an empty space. Our devising ensemble faced both challenges, and more. Without a playwright, our ensemble faced the seemingly impossible task of creating a play from scratch with only a theme to guide us — and that theme is . . . missed connections. While we could turn for advice to famous examples of devising companies, even some favorites here in DC, each follows a slightly different formula. There was no single route to get where we were going.

And where exactly were we going? I doubt any in our company could have imagined we would end up with the [missed connections] that we will perform at The Fridge through August 19th. For me, [missed connections] began with an audition and a series of improvisations. In March, our small collective discussed and debated the definitions of missed connections, uncovering our ensemble’s radically disparate opinions. By April we were on our feet, sharing studio space with theatres across the District. Improvised movement inspired dialogue and we established a shared vocabulary of techniques. We found ourselves sifting through hours of material. And finally, we have cobbled together an 80-minute show that asks the question: If you had one chance to be the person you always wanted to be, what would you do? The theme drove us, the company learned to communicate and compromise, and we created something exciting.

I now better understand why “devising” is often the road less traveled. Devised work unabashedly dismisses many principles and practices applicable to traditional theatre. For example, we accepted that a three or even six-week rehearsal process would simply not suffice to create this show, and agreed to live with the work, and each other, for six months instead. As both creator and performer, the role of actor in devised theatre requires more than learning lines and inhabiting a previously established character. Playwrights tend to gripe about devised theatre suggesting that playwrights create structure not just stories, guaranteeing that everything on stage is there for a reason. Blogs from last year’s discussion on the subject at the Arena Stage New Play Convening even harp on the frequent inclusion of a random dance number.

They are all correct. Without a playwright, it was up to our ensemble to maintain structure. We had to catch each other’s vague gags, lines that did not land, movement that seemed too abstract or, conversely, too pedestrian. Even design elements were not off-limits for discussion. We consulted with several professional designers to make each piece cohesive. And that random dance number — a short day-dreamed waltz I choreographed — went through several iterations before finding its proper place. Devising theatre is a challenge, but not impossible — despite our company’s name!

Devised theatre has a niche in modern art. Theatre is more innovative than ever thanks to audience expectations and theatre-makers, like ITC, challenging perceptions of stage-ability. Presenting material that is so intensely personal and a story that is so viscerally probable is risky and terrifying. However, with an ensemble built on six months of trust, a shared language that would drive an eavesdropper mad, passionate contentions and energetic collaboration, trials and triumphs, [missed connections] is what devised theatre is all about.