Creating Authentic Stories Through Collaboration
On Devised Theatre in the US
Spurned by a collective dissatisfaction with the preconceived notions American theatremakers have around the term “devising,” Holly Holsinger, India Nicole Burton, and Olivia Lilley—a group of actors, directors, writers, and devisers—came together for a conversation about the topic. In the conversation, which took place at the end of March 2020 and spanned three cities—Cleveland, Chicago, and Berlin—the trio, alongside moderator Stefan Brün, talked about devising in the United States, how each artist works differently, the future of American theatre, and more.
Stefan Brün: When, how, and why did you first encounter the term “devising” or begin to use the term “devising” for your way of working?
India Nicole Burton: I started using the term in college. Before that, I had no idea what devising theatre was. The term is pretty inaccessible for high school students because usually in high school you’re doing things like musicals.
When I started to see the success of it, I got interested in working with groups and I started my own company, Ma’Sue Productions. It was an interesting way to get other people to tell their stories. I saw that we could create something more essential and truer to the group.
Olivia Lilley: When I was a senior in college, in our theatre lab, we got assigned into groups—one playwright and a group of actors—and were given a chapter of the Persephone story. My playwright wanted to devise and I’d never done that before. We got in a room and tried to figure out what that was. We started with an image—a ladder—and went from there.
I really liked it. We took a lot more pride in the work. It was the first time that year that we were really excited to be there. We were like, “All right, let’s get messy.” And that stuck with me.
Holly Holsinger: I had already been devising for almost a decade before the word came to be widely known. I was really relieved when that happened because what I was doing was hard to describe. The word somehow legitimized my work, especially when I applied for university positions. There was an article that came out in American Theatre Magazine, maybe mid-two-thousands, just in time for my interviews. So I could say, “This is what I do. See? It’s important.” But up until then, we called it group-created, movement-based theatre.
Stefan: When introducing devising to potential playwrights, directors, designers, and performers in the educational setting, what are the most important strategies to teach and what are the most commonly encountered, or most perilous, pitfalls within education?
Holly: I do not use the term “devising” right away in my teaching. I came out of Grotowski’s Objective Drama program at UC Irvine in the early nineties. That experience gave me a lot of tools, but it also gave me values that I bring to my students as we create material: how to respect themselves, their work, and each other.
I teach ways of creating physical performance and collaboration. I teach techniques but also that it’s possible to just mess around and see what happens. Mostly, I teach students to think of themselves as creative artists, no matter what they’re doing in theatre, that they’re a collaborator with the script, with the character, with the director. They need to bring themselves and their imaginations to everything they do.
I also want students to know they can actually make their own work. I want them to know there is another way besides auditioning, besides doing a monologue in front of a table of white guys who are going to decide their future. I’ve never liked that system, which is another reason I came to devising.
India: I think African American people… We are essentially conditioned to go with the traditional way of theatre. The word “devising” is very intimidating to most African American actors or artists. I’m just now learning that, as a person moving into more of a leadership role, the word “devise” is not the best word to use because when you think of devised theatre, you often see it with avant-garde work. People associate “devising” with “weird,” but it really isn’t.
When I started to teach I was right out of college, and I automatically started to teach the kids—fourth and fifth graders—stuff I had learned in college: Grotowski and Stanislavski. I didn’t know any better. We had to start devising theatre because we didn’t have money to buy rights to things. This allowed them to learn about Black Wall Street, about the four little girls who were bombed in Birmingham. I started to use devising not only as a means to force them to use their creative imaginations, but to also learn about themselves.
The kids I had in fifth grade are now in tenth grade, and they don’t really know any other way to work, except for to devise theatre. Even when they get scripted work, they’re often devising. It has turned them into leaders. They can go into a room and say, “Hey look, I can write this. I do not need to have a script and can create this world without having a script as well.”
Olivia: I don’t work with the same actors every time. I always try to include some actors I’ve worked with before and some new actors, so I’m orienting them to my specific way of working. I’ve been working on a process since 2013 that combines new play development and devised new work. Before a script exists, the characters and the story and the adaptation happen in the room, and then a writer goes away and writes. When I come back with a draft, I like to say that everyone gets to yell at me that I’m doing everything wrong. And that’s where we start.
Something that’s become required of me for these kinds of processes, the more I’ve cultivated and clarified them, is that I have to break things down clearly into phases so everyone knows what their role is in what phase. It starts with us, all having ideas—nobody’s trumps anyone else’s. At a certain point it becomes: “You’re an actor and you’re putting your actor hat on, and your job is to watch this character and watch how that is manifesting.” And I, as a writer, am putting my writer hat on and I’m making sure the script is making sense and evolving.
I often surround myself with a creative team that involves a dramaturg, maybe several assistant directors, maybe a choreographer who is a company director with me. I’m much more about floating hierarchy or intentional hierarchies than a co-authored method. My frustration with the word “devising” is that it doesn’t mean one thing.
Holly: Anything can be devising. We can make up how to do it. There are so many models now, so when people tell me they devise work, I’m not sure what that means.
I am on a search committee at Cleveland State University right now for a university position, and I have a lot of people applying for the same job I was applying for fifteen years ago, telling me, “I’m a devising expert.” And I’m like, “What is that?” Maybe if I look at their background and their teachers I might have an idea.
Sometimes there is an auteur, a director, and an author in the room and everyone is contributing in some way. Sometimes people are group writing or group creating from some kind of prompt. For me, it’s best when there’s one or two people who are seeing and bringing those pieces together in a meaningful way. It’s very powerful for students because it’s a great way for them to tell their stories. There’s not a lot of opportunity, unfortunately, for some people to tell their stories or even to do plays that tell their stories.
India: It’s interesting, Holly, that you say there’s no right way of doing it. When you do get students who have backgrounds in devising, some have been so conditioned to working a certain way that when it comes to doing it together, they’ll say, “This isn’t how I devise theatre.”
Olivia: There are no rules.
India: Exactly. I spent a lot of time trying to say that. Devising theatre doesn’t mean that I can’t bring in a script I’ve already written. I can still do that. And I don’t necessarily have to let anyone contribute to that part because I am leading this process. There are other ways I’m asking people to contribute.
I want [students] to know there is another way besides auditioning, besides doing a monologue in front of a table of white guys who are going to decide their future.
Stefan: India, in your play Panther Women: An Army for the Liberation, the detail, structure, coordinated choreography, and shared orchestrated text seem like they would have required composition and scoring. Did you use any score, notational methods, beyond just a written script? What is the most decisively devised aspect of the work?
India: Panther Women follows the stories of three prominent women who were members of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Movement to explore the lives and unique experiences of Black Women in America. The movement was definitely the most devised aspect! The script is a little devised, but I’m the proprietor of it. Movement was the core of the devising process; movement is so important to the piece that the choreographer, Lexy Lattimore, is the co-director. I started off by having the company create a phrase of movement without the choreographer. In the beginning, I think it can be a little bit intimidating for a cast who does not come from a choreography background to try to create phrases in front of a choreographer. I brought in pictures, maybe of the civil rights movement, of African Americans being water-hosed, or maybe an abstract picture, like a hand coming out of a wall. I told them to use five or six pictures to create a phrase. Then I had them all show me their phrases, and I’d say, “Why don’t we combine them?” or “Why don’t we use this phrase here?”
We created a basic language of movement throughout the entire show, which is why you’ll see some of the movement appear over and over. When devising, I consider myself like a jazz musician. Miles Davis might have come in and told his quartet, “Today, I want to do this album that has these jungle noises in it.” Essentially, this is the basis we’re starting from. There always has to be a basis from which the work derived. We have to establish a world. And then, in that world, anything goes as long as we can trace it back to the basis.
Stefan: Holly and Olivia, how does India’s work relate to your ways of working and devising?
Holly: In my experience, the actors are often contributing the movement or the physical action. I’m also reminded of one payoff of devising, which is rehearsing as you create, not starting at the beginning of a script and saying, “What do we do?” As the performance builds, you are, in some way, perfecting and refining it.
Olivia: My first three years of making devised work, I would always have an outline, which was the only script. I’m a huge fan of group exercises, so I’d pair people up and they’d have ten minutes to make a three-minute thing that involved really specific rules. I’d time it so they’d start to really feel time.
Holly: Devising a piece can actually take years. It can be a very time-consuming process. Giving people a time constraint can compress some of that process. I know sometimes I give a very short time limit because I need a performer to just create it now, instead of sitting around and thinking about it for twenty minutes. I tell my students, “Your brain has no good ideas, only your gut. Go with your gut.”
Olivia: I couldn’t agree more. Especially early in the process, I want to get people out of their heads and out of the idea of pleasing me, so I’ll make them do work without me present. I can tell some people like to pander, and I want to really make those people uncomfortable as soon as possible because then they’ll get it. I’m not interested in what they think I want.
One payoff of devising [is] rehearsing as you create, not starting at the beginning of a script and saying, “What do we do?” As the performance builds, you are, in some way, perfecting and refining it.
Stefan: Olivia, in your recent productions as artistic director of Chicago’s Prop Thtr, you’ve distinguished between two different methods of devising that you refer to as author-based devising and group-based devising. Can you unpack that distinction? And Holly and India, have you experienced different types of devising you could categorize, or is there another devising experience to contrast with your own methods?
Olivia: At Prop Thtr, I’m part artist-in-residence and part curator/champion of others. Every season I make a show, and then I have a guest artist I commission to make another. I need at least a year timeline for that process, for that other person, and also for myself. I like to give group-based devising more time in the room.
Last year, Anna Gelman created a show called I Am Going To Die Alone And I Am Not Afraid, which was very much in the group method. They only had three months, which was crazy. Anna had been thinking about the project for two years, so she came in quite ready to start making. But I try to separate things into those categories so I can figure out, as a producer, how I can accommodate and customize the schedule, so they can make the work.
Holly: It’s very hard to make these categories.
India: For me too. It’s very hard.
Holly: A lot of my work over the years has been with Raymond Bobgan at Cleveland Public Theatre; we both come from Grotowski. When I’m working with him, it’s really clear that he’s the auteur, he’s the director and author, even though the performers contribute in various ways. I contribute physical scores that can be woven into the whole, or songs, or vocal soundscapes, or sometimes writing. But the director gives the tasks and is responsible for the montage of that original material.
In the work I do separately, it’s not always as clear. The small project that I’ve been working on recently, Marie Curie Horror Story, started with some writing. It was all over the place. I asked a director, Chris Seibert, and another performer to work on it with me. They helped me shape that piece. So sometimes it’s incredibly collaborative.
It’s really important though to have one person who makes the final decision. I’ve never had a lot of luck with consensus. I most often say, “Yes, yes, yes,” but every once in a while, it's, “No. Not that,” and we’d move on.
Olivia: The opportunity for performers to say no and for us to be like, “Okay, we’re going to do something else or go in another direction” is one of the most exciting things about working in non-traditional processes.
Holly: And there has to be an incredible amount of trust.
India: I’m so glad you mentioned that. My main focus is to work with African American individuals to tell our stories, whatever that may mean. And for African Americans who are conditioned from birth not to trust people, it’s really hard to get them to fall into this new idea of how to make theatre. It’s hard to build that trust.
Olivia: My process has gotten longer with intention. I used to have four months straight to build a giant show and at a certain point some actors wanted to say, “Hey, let’s work on this more.” And because of the time constraints, if I focused on what they needed to do, I would end throwing everyone else under the bus, I’ve been trying to elongate my process so there are more opportunities to say no. The time thing is so interesting because how much time do we need?
I hope that by implementing devised theatre, we see more plays done for the people and by the people and we get the true, authentic stories of people’s cultures and their ethnic backgrounds.
Stefan: As one way to distinguish devising from collective decision-making or lowest common-denominator decisions, we use the term “floating hierarchies.” Can you give examples of how individual ideas, impulses, and leadership are taken up by the group and by the piece being made? Is the idea of floating hierarchy useful to your work?
Holly: I like the term “floating hierarchies” because sometimes we have a bunch of experts in the room and whatever needs to be addressed at that moment can be directed to that person.
India: I’m currently trying to figure that out. I’m a very anxious person and I can sometimes put the product over the process when the process sometimes has to be more important than the products.
Stefan: You spoke about not having the choreographer in the room when you have people work up a phrase of movement. That, for me, would be an example of floating hierarchy. You are at the top of the hierarchy while you develop what the prompt is, then they are on top of the hierarchy while they respond with movement, and then a choreographer comes atop the hierarchy to come in and shape it for the stage.
Olivia: I’ve been thinking a lot about who gets to give who notes when. And it’s been really great playing with that. When we are out of quarantine and it is safe, Prop will continue our production of an adaptation of the Lulu plays by Frank Wedekind called Diary of an Erotic Life. I’ve been very intentional about when I put myself in the position of the note taker and when I get to give notes.
Holly: At the beginning of this COVID-19 world, I was in a rehearsal process at Cleveland Public Theatre. We found ways to stay farther and farther apart and eventually we had to go virtual. But we’re still rehearsing. We’re working on individual assignments, and then we have Zoom rehearsals where we show what we’ve created. The current world situation has required new ideas of how to do it.
Olivia: I second that. I’m going into a process next year. My dramaturg on this current show is going to be the writer on the next show we devise, and I’m going to be the director, and we are doing all of the auditions and callbacks online.
Stefan: What is your aspiration for this kind of work and what terms are useful?
Olivia: I’m excited for a new American theatre, where plays are written in the more traditional sense and where there are also devised new works, which are also plays, and all of this is programmed back-to-back and you can’t tell one from the other. My personal hope is that regional theatres will start to build infrastructure that will host and present this. I hope it becomes widespread.
India: I agree. I hope that by implementing devised theatre, we see more plays done for the people and by the people and we get the true, authentic stories of people’s cultures and their ethnic backgrounds. Too many stories are being told and they’re not real, they’re not true stories being told by the people. Devising theatre is the way to do that.
Holly: I am in a weird place because of this quarantine. The future seems really open and unclear, and I don’t have a lot of ideas for it. I’m curious what this time will do for art, to art. I have more curiosity than hope or aspirations about it. I think there might be an opportunity here.
India: That’s exciting for me.
Stefan: Me too.
Olivia: Me too.