Entering the Unknown, and Fostering the Conditions for Creativity in the Theatre
In this series, Ben Yalom looks at aspects of devising and collaborative creation. The ensemble theatre movement has gained enormous momentum in recent years, and this series aims to note reasons for undertaking collaboration as well as best practices and common pitfalls.
Mainstream theatre in America works largely on a season model, meaning a company selects plays to produce in a given year, announces the bunch of them, and then gets to work bringing these productions to life, one after the other. For better and for worse, this requires a highly product-oriented approach to making theatre, one in which the rehearsal time is limited, and as soon as one play is up, the next goes into rehearsal. Ensemble approaches to theatre tend to embrace a different philosophy, one which places more emphasis on the process of creation, often taking more time to develop new works and, when successful, resulting in rich, surprising works of art.
There are good reasons for these alternative approaches, but they too cause problems: for the work to be relevant, people must come experience it, but when a company produces sporadically it is hard to develop and maintain an engaged audience, and equally hard to play a significant role in the company’s community. Collaboratively created works are also often longer and more expensive to develop than the standard select a script, cast the show, rehearse for five weeks, and raise the curtain model.
Ensemble approaches to theatre tend to embrace a different philosophy, one which places more emphasis on the process of creation, often taking more time to develop new works and, when successful, resulting in rich, surprising works of art.
So why engage in ensemble creation processes? Because we want to create, want to explore, want to be artists. The more product-oriented approach to making theatre largely removes experimentation from the equation. The work—at least the work of the actors, director, and designers—becomes less creative and less likely to break new ground. The script already exists, and there is no time for deeply creative work in the studio. In a sense such productions become less art, more craft.
I once heard someone describe the difference between an art and a craft defined as follows: the craftsperson takes on a project that may be one of great complexity and beauty. Essentially, however, they know from the start more or less what the thing they are making will look like when they are done. They know the target. The artist, on the other hand, must jump into the unknown, creating without knowing their final destination. The end point is a surprise, and the path to it may be strewn with false starts, failures, twists, turns, and unexpected discoveries. These are broad definitions, but interesting nonetheless.
This state of entering the unknown is essential to creating anything new in the theatre—be it a truly innovative play or a new form. Ideally (but certainly not always) the more process-oriented approaches embraced by many ensembles cultivate spaces for such exploration, arenas in which the best ideas and impulses from all involved—actors, writers, designers, dramaturgs, directors, and more—are brought forth, examined, and nurtured.
Fostering this space for creativity doesn’t necessarily require a collaborative creation process, nor is it the case that plays produced by mainstream theatres never break new ground. But in most cases it is the playwright, working primarily alone, who has jumped into the unknown, and had the opportunity and responsibility to explore, fail, and create. The resulting script may be fantastic, a true piece of art.
In this model the performers, directors, designers, etc. are “reduced” to craftspeople—the manifestation of the play on stage becomes a process in which we already know where we are going when we begin. Another way of putting it, perhaps more familiar in the theatre world, is that we become “interpretive artists” rather than “creative artists.” Our role is to interpret the words and worlds the playwright has imagined, rather than creating new worlds ourselves.
There are, of course, numerous ways for performers to shift from interpreter to creator, such as engaging in company devised works, to a hybrid models where a company works with a playwright—from the Joint Stock Company in which David Hare and Caryl Churchill wrote great works, to the ways in which my own company, foolsFURY, has worked with brilliant writers Doug Dorst and Sheila Callaghan.
Both playwright-centric and company-centric methods can produce great work. But collaborative models can offer different possibilities unavailable to the playwright, two of which stand out as most critical. First, it is often the case when creating a play that the next thing that needs to happen is not a series of words, but rather physical movement, or singing, or a ballet of lights and sound. And often playwrights are not the best suited to finding these things, simply because the theatre contains so many different art forms and specializations. Secondly, collaborative creation engages the artists in a different, deeper way. They move from being interpreters to being co-creators, and are often more invested in, and more responsible for, what they put on stage. Together, this greater breadth of possibilities, and greater degree of engagement, can make for deeper, richer, works on stage. It is no accident that many of the greatest advances in the field over the centuries came from companies with collaborative models, from commedia troupes to the Group Theatre to Complicité or the SITI Company today.
To my mind, the added challenges can be well worth the effort. In any case, these questions of product and process, of craft and art, of interpretation and creation, are critical as we consider where the field is, and should be, going.