Songs for the Struggling Artist

What I wish American Theatre would learn from the Brits #3

#3 Expand our standard Theatrical Categories and Vocabulary

In the UK, there is an accepted form of theatre called DEVISED THEATRE. It’s essentially actor-created (or actor-designer-director-writer-etc created) work. Some companies that have become well know for it (that I love) are Complicité, Improbable Theatre, Told By An Idiot and Kneehigh Theatre. We have some companies that devise work here in the States, too. The Wooster Group, Mabou Mines, The Siti Company – but we don’t call them devised. I’m not sure what we call them.

When I tell people I create devised work or that I’m interested in devising, very few people have the slightest idea of what I’m talking about (unless they’re in Theatre in Education, interestingly.) I don’t know why this is but I think it’s time for a change. I think there’s a way where, by not naming this very established and important form of theatre making, we are continuing to marginalize it. Now, the Wooster Group is certainly not suffering for lack of recognition and I don’t think they hurt for ticket sales – but only in certain circles. What they do is still called Avant Garde and experimental, despite the fact that they’ve been an established company for decades, inspiring many other devisors behind them.

For the average American, theatre means only Broadway or musicals or both and we need to expand our categories and allow for physical theatre, devised theatre, verbatim theatre, promenade theatre  (all legitimate recognized forms in the UK and mostly unmentioned here despite their presence) and give them a proper place at the table.


5 Comments so far
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Hey, I’m a theatre student in Britain.
I have to say that I think ‘devised theatre’ seems equally as popular in the USA as it is here. We too often think of West End or Musicals when Theatre’s mentioned, i think because its the mainstream, but like you were saying, devised theatre isnt as considered, I’m trying to talk from the perspective of the average Brit, I mean, I’m a Theatre student (on a course which is all about devising) so I feel I know alot of groups in the Uk and in USA that devise work, my Mum however probably wouldnt have a clue. I’m not sure its any different there as it is here, devised theatre is just as experimental in this side of the world.
Plus the Wooster group is the most well known devised theatre group I know of, and theyre in the USA.
Paul x

Comment by podonnell6

Thanks for your comment!
Yes, I can see that it would SEEM equally popular here as there in Britain. And if we’re just looking at work that IS devised, I would agree with you. However, as I said above, very little of what IS devised theatre is CALLED Devised Theatre here. Including the Wooster Group (who must have a big chapter in the textbook on Devising, because every Brit I’ve ever spoken to about this uses them as an example.) Check their history on their site; they never once use the word devised.
Until VERY recently, (and I mean recently – like since I wrote this a couple of years ago) even people who made devised theatre didn’t know what they were doing was Devising. I count myself among them. I devised a show in 2005 and had no idea how to describe what I was doing. By the time I devised one in 2006, I had a word for it and I was elated.
Because of the limitations of categories of work here in the US, most devised work in the US ends up getting called Experimental, a category some devisors eschew, because of its associations with naked people covered in blood. (No disrespect to those who are naked and covered in blood!)
So, certainly, you’re right, devising is still on the edges in the UK but you’d be able to see it at the Barbican, or even (rarely) at the National by people who knew that they were seeing.
The difference being that your grandmother may not know what devising is but the practioners of Devising would know that is what they were doing. I’m not actually concerned about the AMOUNT of devising here in the USA – but I am interested in having good language that most people IN the art can use to describe it.
You, a student in Britain, are learning about devising in your school work. If my extremely unscientific sampling is correct, most students of theatre in the UK get a little exposure to the ideas. Here in the US, only a select few would ever even hear the word “devised.”
And language matters. Having words to describe things gives them weight and value. It’s sort of why we have language,I think!

Comment by erainbowd

hmm, I dont know – I dont think ‘devised’ is a popular word here either – Yes I understand my work to be devised, but not sure others would think to use that term. Could you maybe give an example of a british group that calls their works ‘devised’, I feel like its a word we dont tend to use here either – experimental is probably how you’d describe the work of ‘devisors’ in Britain too, but maybe I could be proved wrong?? :p

Comment by podonnell6

And maybe you’re right, maybe the British companies I mentioned don’t call themselves devised in their publicity, either. The people I know who’ve worked with them do, though. And the audience might, too. You would, as a theatre student.
The only book on Devised Theatre hasn’t ever been printed here in the US.
The mainstream British media regularly write about Devised work (albeit in the Blogs more than the front pages, I concede.)
From the first page of search results on Devised Theatre:

We’re not having these conversations in the mainstream media in the US – just in small theatre circles.
And ultimately, I only have my own anecdotal evidence of my conversations with theatre artists here and there, as well as making work in both places.
But ultimately, it doesn’t matter who ignores Devised Theatre more, the Brits or the Americans. It would be great for EVERYONE to recognize it.
And for here in the States, it’s not just Devising I’m advocating talking about, it’s many other categories of theatre.

Comment by erainbowd

…Agreed 😀

Comment by podonnell6

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