|PART ONE: THE BASIC TOOLS WITH WHICH TO WORK|
|EXPLORING ACTOR / AUDIENCE RELATIONSHIPS||5|
|FURTHER TOOLS: THE ROLE OF THE DESIGN ELEMENTS||9|
|GOOD AND BAD THEATRE OR WHAT WORKS AND WHAT DOES NOT||12|
|TELLING A STORY||20|
|CHARACTER AND RESEARCH||32|
|PART TWO: CONFRONTING THE FINAL PROJECT|
|A WORD ABOUT CHOOSING THE GROUPS||36|
|SHAPING THE PIECE||59|
|A LIST OF DOS AND DON'TS||66|
In the last few years it has become imperative for every drama student from G.C.S.E. upwards to be able to manage devising skills. And yet of all the drama skills, this is the hardest one of all. To be able to devise one must have highly developed 'people' skills as well as an understanding of the whole process of theatre: writing, shaping, lighting and the other design skills as well as acting. This is a daunting task for experienced groups of actors to undertake; yet we expect it of students of fifteen and sixteen years old.
Nonetheless, our students have one advantage over the professional actor: their livelihoods do not depend on it. Their piece of devised theatre does not have to sell seats; they have instead the luxury of being able to experiment and approach things in a fresh way. The outcome is important from a personal point of view - exam results may depend on it - but they do not have to worry about the commercial success of their venture. This gives them the chance of extraordinary freedom in approach and subject-matter.
What precisely is a devised play? It is a play that is
conceived and brought to satisfactory theatrical fruition
by the equal collaboration of a group of people. It may
have a starting point that has been set by an examining
board or by a teacher or the subject-matter may have been
the group's free choice. It may have a time-limit of a mere
fifteen minutes or may be a full-length piece of theatre
- though the latter is unlikely at the levels we are dealing
with. All elements of the piece - writing, direction, set,
costume, lighting and any other devices deemed a necessary
part of the finished piece will be the responsibility of
For examination purposes, the finished devised piece will be judged by its success as a piece of theatre. It is thus a test, not only of all those skills listed above, but also of each student's understanding of what makes good theatre. It will stand or fall by whether it 'works' as a piece of theatre for an audience, even if that audience is limited to a few friends of the cast and an examiner.
An immediate problem strikes the beleaguered drama teacher. How to instil in the average student, who has opted for the subject at G.C.S.E. or at 'A' level with little or no previous experience of drama, an adequate understanding of what makes a good play. No drama student can begin to devise without some understanding of these basics.
In an ideal world, we would all begin the term by taking our students on a series of visits which covered a broad spectrum of theatre: at least one naturalistic piece on a proscenium arch stage, a piece of epic theatre where the barriers between audience and actors are being challenged and where the fourth wall has been breached, a piece of experimental theatre, preferably along the physical or visual theatre lines, to excite them and open their eyes to further possibilities of actor/audience relationships, a piece in a tiny familiar venue such as a pub backroom or similar, etc. etc. And, of course, it is just not possible. Nonetheless, how can we expect them to bring forth a devised piece without giving them the basic understanding with which to start?
This book will not give you all the answers but will try to propose some strategies as to how to confront the problems. Ideally, the work towards devising should begin in Years 8 and 9; some of the work in this filel would expect to be done at that stage if it is at all possible, but for many of you it just isn't feasible. Perhaps you don't have drama as a subject lower down the school; perhaps you are teaching at a sixth form centre and inheriting students from an enormously wide spectrum of experience. In that case, I would suggest that you dip into the early suggestions, at least to give some common shared background to all your group.
The first part of this file, therefore concentrates on giving a basic knowledge of the necessary 'tools' to every student. Having followed it, they should understand the kind of choices that are their's to make: choices of style, subject-matter and approach.
The second part of the file comes to grips with the final project and its demands, working through a variety of models and examples to point out clearly both the pitfalls and the strategies that can be used to tackle those pitfalls.
As is my usual practice throughout all the files, the emphasis of this work is on practice rather than theory. There are already in existence excellent books on the history of devising, the multitude of forms that it takes, how different established theatre groups and practitioners approach it, and so on. I do not aim to repeat any of that material but to confront head on the problems faced by a teacher and a group of probably inexperienced students with an examination looming.
Sample pages from Devising Skills
Telling a Story
Sit the class down for a brainstorming session on the following simple and well-known story. It is the story of 'Frankie and Johnny', set in the nineteenth century Wild West, taken from a well-known ballad.
- Frankie and Johnny grew up together and when they reached their teens they swore they would marry and love each other for ever.
- Times were rough in the pioneering 'Wild West' of those days; women were as tough as their menfolk and had to be to survive.
- Eventually the two were married.
- Though Frankie worked for her man as she felt she should, Johnny spent his time in the town and in the bars, talking big and spending what little money they had.
- He began to come back later and later and one day Frankie had had enough.
- She stormed down to town and into the bar.
- Asking where Johnny was, the barman told her he had left just a little time before with a chorus girl called Nellie Bly.
- Frankie ran the way the barman indicated and caught up with them in the street.
- Telling Johnnie to turn and face her, she said no more than that he had done her wrong; he was her man and he had betrayed their love.
- Then she shot him.
- After that, the spirit went out of her and she allowed herself to be arrested.
- For the murder of her husband, she was sent to the electric chair.
First of all discuss what angle you might like to take on this tale. Here are some options:
- as a straight ballad-like tale, perhaps with a Wild West hill-billy sort of flavour
- as a psychological tale of love and betrayal
- showing sympathy to Frankie
- showing up the injustices of the legal system
Deciding on the angle, which is the same thing as saying 'in what way do we want to affect an audience?', is crucial. Everything else will hang on this decision: the style of the piece, the characterisation, which pieces of the story become important, which less so.
Take this bare bones story line, bearing In mind the angle you have decided to take on it, and discuss the implications of every sentence, asking the following questions:
- Is this necessary to the story?
- Is it performable as it stands or does it need to be approached in a different way?
- Does it need further development?
As an example, perhaps you have decided to tell the story showing sympathy for Frankie's position within it. Sentences 2, 4 and 5 become crucial to the understanding of her character. They would need considerable development to show how hard she works to fulfil her side of the marriage bargain, how the pressure of Johnny's actions and attitude grow on her and how she eventually reaches a point where her tolerance has snapped. To maintain audience sympathy when she shoots him, this background and build-up to the climax is essential. If you further wanted to pull out the sympathy stops and underline how she lived for her love, then an important scene could also be her waiting for death by the electric chair in prison. "The spirit' has gone out of her and she no longer cares whether she lives or dies.
Another example, if you wanted to tell the story to show up the injustices of the legal system, is to focus the whole tale in retrospect, centring on Frankie's trial and sentence. The rest of the story is relatively unimportant except as it has a bearing on her action and should unfold bit by bit. If you told the story in linear order, too much focus would be on the tale, not enough on the sentencing. Flashbacks to episodes that contributed to her reasons for committing murder might be the way to proceed here.
Whichever way you decide to present the story, the characters of the two protagonists are essential, as is research into the period and the type of lives they would have led. The results of this research would reveal hardships, toil and poverty. It is clear that Frankie is a simple person who sees things in a straightforward way: 'you are my man and you done me wrong.' This lack of abilty with words and complex ideas might be a crucial one to stress when looking at the injustices of the legal system, which might read her straightforwardness and her worldview as obstinacy and her passion as mental instability.
A cursory glance down the key twelve sentences of the story reveals a large number of potential settings:
- somewhere for the childhood scenes, perhaps a 'secret' place of their own
- a church
- Frankie and Johnny's shack
- the bar
- a street
- a prison
- the execution room
Ask yourselves how many of these are absolutely necessary. Can some information be shown another way? For instance, conversations between the married couple at home might reveal their shared childhood and their vows and the passion with which they were expressed. This would exclude the need for childhood scenes or for the church.
How important is the bar? It might be necessary if you wanted to emphasise the dissolution of Johnny and needed to set scenes of drunkenness and debauchery there, but then again this could be shown by the state in which he arrives home or by other means, such as reportage of sightings of him from a gossipy neighbour, for instance.
The point I am making is that there are often ways around what seems to be a multitude of settings. Reduce them to the very fewest possible and wherever possible keep scenes that are outside the locations you have chosen as vital, on neutral ground, such as a street or similarly 'vague' designation.
Hopefully, this model will give your group many ideas as to how to proceed. Now try them with an example of their own to work on.
Dividing your class up into groups, allocate each group a different type of story. Here are examples from which to choose:
- a folk tale, 'fairy' story, myth or legend
- a parable - a story that has a moral or strong message attached to it
- the life story of a famous person
- the story behind an item of news
- the 'bare bones' storyline of a novel
- an invented story
The first thing the group should do with their story allocation, having chosen what they are going to do, is to write it down in as straightforward a way as possible.
Follow this up with the following:
- Decide on the angle you are going to take to the story. What do you want the audience to experience? Keep this decision in mind throughout all the following process.
- Divide the storyline into episodes according to changes of location. Then as a group ask which of these changes of location are necessary? Could some of the incidents be condensed to happen in the same 'place' or the same scene? Are all the episodes necessary to the storyline? Could some be excluded?
- Look again at that storyline. Can it be simplified
- What episodes are an absolute necessity to our understanding of the development of the storyline or of character?
- What are pleasing episodes that may perhaps help our understanding of character but will not further the story?
- What are absolutely unnecessary? Or contain some necessary information but which could be introduced in a casual conversation or by other means?
Reducing the story and tussling with it like this is absolutely imperative. You may by now have reduced it to its essentials but still have one or two 'pleasing episodes' that may further character but not the story itself. A scene that does not further the action should be deemed unnecessary. The information that scene revealed about a central character needs to be woven somehow into one of the essential scenes.
An example of this is one that may be familiar to many of you, from Arthur Miller's 'The Crucible'. When you tell the story of the play you find you are unable to tell it without saying the following:
- that Abigail and the other girls met in the forest to 'play' with magic rituals that they all knew would be forbidden. Most were merely playing but Abigail was serious; she was willing to find any "black magic' means to rid herself of her rival and to bring John Proctor back to her.
This scene is not shown, but the information and the facts are woven Into the fabric of the scenes which follow, through the comments of other characters, reportage, and so on.
A close study of any play will reveal many 'hidden' unshown scenes that the playwright has excluded and merely hints at. Often these unplayed scenes, whose information spills into the fabric of the play, reveal extra dimensions to a charcter and are suggested for that purpose. We need to know, for instance, that Romeo has been courting another lady, Rosaline, to know that he is ripe for love and also to show the contrast between that unrequited love and the 'true' requited love he finds with Juliet. We only witness the love scenes with Juliet but our knowledge of him and the purpose of the play is enriched by reference to the earlier episode in his life.
Confronting their own storyline, as in the above exercise, will prove invaluable when tackling their final group project. It should train them in how to look at a story-line, make them wiser at finding ways around problems and start them off on that most difficult of all procedures: the selection and rejection of material. Hardest of all is learning to exclude scenes that are visually pleasing or that have gone well in improvisation, but that do not further the storyline or the message.