Workshop - Devising 2002.

Essay Workshop  
Three actors playing cardinals in turn playing Adam, Eve and God listen as their director makes a suggestion for improvements.

Here is an outline of the 2002 devising workshops that we ran in conjunction with Birmingham Repertory Theatre. It might help you remember some of the work we did or give you some more ideas.

One of the first steps in devising a show is obviously finding its subject matter, getting anidea, a good starting point to launch you off. In the workshop we used the day’s newspaper as a source for ideas and used it in various ways to generate material, suggest ideas and so on.

Exercise 1

In the first exercise we asked you to go through the newspaper and find a story that you thought could be turned into a strong piece of theatre. We asked you to discuss what opportunities the story presented as a piece of drama but also to identify any potential problems. We wanted you to think about how you might turn that story into a piece of exciting and engaging theatre:
Would you use the whole story or focus on one element of it and expand that? How would you stage the piece? Would it be designed with a specific audience in mind? What type of stage/venue would it be suited to? How many performers would you need? Would it be visual or text based (or both?)?

There are more questions you would need to ask…
In your groups you then pitched your idea to us and the rest of the group trying to convince us that your idea would make the most interesting piece of theatre.

Exercise 2

In this exercise you used images from the newspaper to create new stories.

We asked you to select five pictures containing people whose actions, expressions, gestures and so on looked interesting.

We asked you to think about the emotions within the images and in your groups to recreate the images as accurately as you could, thinking particularly about facial expressions and gestures. You then put your images in a sequence that suggested a story and developed ways of moving betweeen the images.

We talked about how placing the images in a different order might suggest a different story. You presented the pieces, repeating your sequence to music. It was interesting how sometimes different audience members saw different stories in the same piece. Repeating the sequences gave them a very beautiful quality and often threw up even more possible readings. They changed froman exercise into a mini polished performance.

Exercise 3

In this exercise you used fragments of text from the newspaper to create scenes.

We asked you to find a sentence or phrase that captured your attention for some reason – the combination of words, the rhythm, the story it suggested… In your groups you then created a wierd choir with a conductor who controlledwhen and how the lines were spoken. You experimented with the order, the volume, the amount of the phrase that was said and so on.

We asked you to think about interesting ways of presenting your pieces. Some went for full on rhytmic, musical pieces, others for more dramatic presentations.

We then asked you to invent a sign language or gesture equivalent for your phrase and to then use the same conductor format to create a physical scene. When put to music some of these became strange and beatiful dances. When we had time we played around with combining the text and physical scenes and suddenly potential pieces of theatre began to emerge and the scenes began to have some depth.

Exercise 4

In this exercise at the end of the day we attempted to combine some of the elements of the day into a whole group improvisation. This is a way that we as a company often work -trying exercises during the day, talking about ideas, working on short scenes and then trying to pull it all together. It can be a difficult and frustrating way to work but it can also be very creative and throw up some amazing moments of theatre. Sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t and you have to be able to discern the difference. Sometimes brilliant things will happen which you think must be in the show but they may not really be appropriate so you have to say goodbye to them and leave them on the cutting room floor.

In our whole group improvisation we created a kind of surreal television newsroom in which a newsreader had to cope with being fed a constantly changing set of stories cut out of the newspaper.

We played around with how these stories were brought on and off by the ‘journalists’ and how the news reader dealt with sometimes not being able to finish the story or being fedthe same story over and over again.

We looked at filling the stage picture with other elements such as the sign language or still pictures.

We talked about the piece as a sort of staging of the newspaper with the various stories, photographs and adverts competing for the attention of the audience.

We talked about the importance of letting the audience do some of the work, about giving them the opportunity to create their own story from the different parts. From two things a third different thing can be created.

We played around with different structures, trying to spot which elements were working well and which were not and why.

We talked about the importance of timing your contribution as a performer, of finding the right moment to contribute.

We saw that sometimes just very simple contributions such as standing motionless, or miming doing the weather could be very effective.

As with our attempts at this kind of rolling improvisation sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes it was too chaotic and we had to stop and find ways of making it work, finding the elements that did work and trying to build those into our next attempts. There were some lovely things though and it was possible to see that with more time and work there were the seeds of a possible show.

So… from the day and from your comments I think it’s possible to draw up a list of hints and things to remember about the devising process. You’ll probably be able to think of more, particularly when you start devising your own shows. Here’s a start though…

It’s not always easy working as a group but listen to each other’s ideas, question each other, talk things through. Be flexible. Get your ideas from everywhere, everything that is around. Keep pushing ideas – don’t just go for the first thing you think of – why is it interesting? What will make it work? What are the problems? Be critical. Allow for spontaneity. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse… don’t be satisfied, keep working on it, make it tight and slick. Think about what you want to tell the audience, what you want them to feel. Make them do some of the work, make them use their minds and imaginations. Big ideas can come from small things. Think about where the piece will be staged. Think about technical needs and problems.

Finally… we saw/heard how powerful music can be, how it can alter a piece, give it atmosphere. The music we used came from:

Brian Eno – Music for Films
Biosphere – Substrata
Boards of Canada – Music Has The Right To Children

Hope you enjoyed the workshop and good luck with your own shows. Let usknow how you get on or if you think we should add anything to our list of hints.

October 2002