Devising Workshops (November 2001)

Essay Workshop  

Devising Workshops (November 2001)   It’s taken a long time coming but here is a companion page to the devising workshops I ran in association with Birmingham Rep. It is designed to jog the memories of those who were there and to provoke devising thoughts in those who were not. Not all of what follows is the truth…

Starting Points.

You’ve got to devise a piece of theatre for your course. If that’s your only reason for wanting to make a show you should dump the course. You should make your piece because you want to make it, because you are inspired.

Being inspired is tricky, often you have to work at it.
You may have to start work uninspired and find a way of becoming inspired. Having a good starting point helps.

I asked you to come up with starting points. Lots of them were single words: love, hate, revenge, happiness; some were titles: The Mirror, The Scam, A Terrible Day; others were situations: a kidnapping, a journey. People suggested the first lines of poems, issues such as racism, adaptations of existing stories or the dramatisation of moments in history.

For Stan’s Cafe starting points come from a host of places, there are often many starting points for one show.

  • Why don’t you think of the atmosphere you want to achieve?
  • Why not try and work in the show something you’ve always wanted to on stage?
  • Why not start by thinking what you want the audience to feel during the show?
  • Why not start with a style of theatre you’ve learnt about and give it a massive twist?
  • Why not start by asking “what if the rules of the world were different a…”?

You could start from something as easy as a game.

“Each of you choose someone else in the room, think of them as A. Choose someone else, think of them as B. Do not tell anyone of your choices. Try and stay as close to A as possible whilst staying as far away from B as possible. GO!”

“Some of the group watch. Look at the patterns. Change the rules and see how the patterns change. Stop thinking of this as a game, think of it as a performance but still obey the rules. What stories emerge? When are these stories effective? What are the most powerful moments? Can you recognise these moments when performing them? Can you recreate these moments?”

Developed in one direction the following exercise becomes the game that drives Simple Maths:

  1. Choose how many performers you want (we had five and it doesn’t really work with less).
  2. Find this number of chairs, plus one. Place the chairs in a row close together facing the audience.
  3. Get someone to draw up a seating plan which informs each performer, confidentially, who they should aim have sitting on either side of them.
  4. The game begins with each performance arriving and sitting on a chair. This should be done one at a time with no regard to the desired seating order.
  5. Once all performers have arrived they can start to work towards their objective: to replicate the seating diagram (collusion between performers is not allowed). In strict rotation, performers stand and choose whether to move to the empty chair or sit back down (the order of rotation is determined by the order of arrival on the chairs). Although we did not use this in Simple Maths, play the rule that if you have the correct person sitting on the correct side of you then you must hold hands.

What makes this enjoyable viewing? What level of performance is most effective? What are the best moments? What stories emerge?

  • Why not think of somewhere exciting to perform your show other than a stage?
  • Why not think of the last thing people would expect your piece to be like, then make it like that?
  • Why not consider the restrictions of your facilites (dodgy lights, limited props, having to share the space, only young actors) and make these the strength of your piece?
  • Why not impose extra restrictions on yourself and see if they create something interesting?

We tried out the following ideas in small groups:

  • Perform a scene in which no one is allowed to touch the ground.
  • Perform a scene in which all the text is taken from a newspaper.
  • Perform a scene in which all the performers are tied together.
  • Perform a scene in which each character only has a one sentence vocabulary.
  • Perform a scene on a stage that is three foot square.

These starting points gave some people inspiration for interesting locations or situations. Some times they created a world similar to our own but slightly twisted. The most successful scenes were often ones where people had turned the restriction into an inspiration. When the restriction in the scene’s world became a metaphor for a restriction in the real world things really got interesting.

Developing Ideas.

Let’s be honest, a lot of what we came up with was rubbish, at first. The ideas took time to develop or get hold of. At some points in the day we had to improvise and sit through dull things waiting for the great things. Sometimes we had to change instructions to push things in a more interesting direction. A lot of time was spent discussing what was going to happen or looking at what had happened.

The clever thing is to spot what has potential and to follow it up, refine it, expand on it and make it into something great. You must be realistic and you mustn’t be down hearted. You must give good feedback to each other, this means honest and constructive criticism. Remember, if you think what you’re doing isn’t very good, the chances are the audience won’t either; sort it out!

  • See loads of theatre nick good things and learn what not to do
  • Balance talking with trying
  • Push things
  • Reject things
  • Be honest with yourselves and others
  • Keep it within your capabilities
  • Push yourselves
  • Make sure form matches content (work out what this means)
  • Keep it theatrical (work out what this means)
  • Don’t rely on words to explain everything
  • Don’t tell the audience everything
  • Obey the rules of your world (except in exceptional cases)
  • If something’s not working making it simpler is more likely to be the answer than making it more complicated.

If you’re stuck bang on some music to get an atmosphere going and stop you having to talk all the time you’re improvising. Music used during the week included:

KLF – Chill Out
Biosphere – Substrata (the one most teachers asked about)
Wim Mertens – Various albums
David Byrne & Brian Eno – My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts

Working Together

Looked at in one way you have lots in common with the people you will be working with, you are roughly the same age, live in roughly the same place and share some interest in theatre. Looked at in another way you’ve not really chosen to work with each other and there’s no reason for you to have similar interests or tastes. Devising can and probably should be an emotionally engaging experience especially once so you’re going to have to be pretty good at diplomacy. The top tip of the week I think came from a student who said “draw up a contract”. This makes so much sense. Ask what you expect from each other and write it down. How are you going to work together? How are you going to stop fist fights? How are you going going to prevent making the blandest piece of theatrical compromise in history?


What you’re making doesn’t have to be a theatre story, it could be like a theatre poem, or a theatre painting, or a theatre race, or a theatre experiment, or a theatre war (I don’t know what half these things are, why don’t you find out then e-mail and tell me).

Making up stories should be easy, we’ve all done this a lot all our lives. Remember you don’t have to tell the story from beginning to end, you can leap about in time, or place, or perspective.

We ended our sessions by making a theatre mosaic, we made a load of stuff and then asked “what fits with what?”. We wrote all the bold visual things we’d done through the day on scraps of paper. We structured our final mini-performance by asking…

  • What would be good to start with?
  • What would be good to end with?
  • What bit works best after this bit?
  • Is there any one thing that can run through the whole thing?

Some of the final pieces weren’t very good but some were so exciting I could see them as a rough sketch for something strange and wonderful.

It was fun, if a little cold. Good luck & have fun.

December 2001