fbpx New Orleans’s Intramural Theater Centers Consent in Their Devising Model | HowlRound Theatre Commons

New Orleans’s Intramural Theater Centers Consent in Their Devising Model

Within the swirling sea of weird experiments in making that is New Orleans theatre, Intramural Theater, founded in 2015, has managed to stake out its own particular brand of weird. While Intramural produces traditional plays and hosts community events, such as a twenty-five hour play festival, their signature work is reflected in their devised shows, which are collectively created according to a specific devising method developed by the company’s founding artistic director, Bennett Kirschner.

The method is based off of Kirschner’s mother’s playwriting pedagogy, fellow New Orleans theatre company Goat in the Road’s devising process, and Augusto Boal’s writings. Kirschner draws inspiration from Boal’s impulse to find ways “to activate our personal day-to-day lives, giving permission to be our authentic selves and have that lead to a creative piece we’re sharing.”

The company has created four devised works to date, and its fifth is in the works. Every devising process starts with a “seed,” which germinates into the research, writing, and physical devising process. Past seeds have been synesthesia, which grew into the 2016 one-act play, Synesthetics; invasive species, which became the full-length play PROTRUSION, presented as part of the 2019 New Orleans InFringe Festival; voyeurism, which premiered as Apostles of Everest in 2021 after a pandemic-delayed rehearsal process; and finally, reincarnation, which produced CAVE in January 2023.

A performer uses a camera while another pushes a prop boulder.

Mary Davis and C.A. Munn in CAVE by Intramural Theater, presented at The Backyard Ballroom. Directed by Bennett Kirschner. Set Design by Adam Tourek. Scenic Design by Nicole Wysocki, Anna Karina Delage & Lauren Barron. Costume Design by Leah Floyd. Lighting Design by Stephen Thurber. Sound Design by Bobby Burvant. Photo by Leah Floyd.

In a departure from the conceptual topics the company has previously planted as their devising seeds, the upcoming production used the 1836 play Woyzeck as a jumping off point. While the collective expected some resonances of the source play would make it into the devised piece, according to Tricia Anderson, an Intramural member since 2020 who participated in the devising processes for Apostles of Everest, CAVE, and the new work, “This piece we came up with is mostly just an absolutely unhinged clown play.”

Some devising processes can feel very amorphous in a way that can be liberating and invite a lot of creativity but might take years to have an end product. This process gets it done.

Intramural is certainly not the only devising game in town—there’s also Goat in the Road, ArtSpot Productions, and Mondo Bizarro, just to name a few—but what makes its devised work unique is the balance between its systematic process and its zany product. Intramural welcomes the wacky, and participants in the devising process speak glowingly about their experiences in the room, gradually building trust as an ensemble so they soon find themselves able to enter a childlike state of playfulness and make-believe, riffing off each other’s ideas to find their wildest expressions. The methodically constructed container of creation makes space for this trust and vulnerability to grow incrementally, all while keeping the end goal in sight. Company member Mary Davis says, “Some devising processes can feel very amorphous in a way that can be liberating and invite a lot of creativity but might take years to have an end product. This process gets it done.”

Practically, here’s how it works: the Intramural collective, currently consisting of nine artists, picks the aforementioned seed. Auditions are held to cast a devising ensemble for the show, and that seed is shared with everyone in the ensemble, inclusive of performers and designers. Ensemble members are invited to send in source materials for the process, which can include academic texts, articles, fiction, poetry, documentaries, music, or anything else that resonates with their experience of the topic. For the upcoming show, all the source materials were sent to Kirschner and Anderson, who reviewed everything and created a curated list for the devising ensemble to pull from while constructing the piece. Ideally, this curated packet of source materials is no more than one hundred-fifty pages of written material and two to three hours of viewing material. The objective, according to Kirschner, is to “build a collective vocabulary we can then create a piece from.”

The curated packet is then sent to all devising ensemble members, along with a deadline for them to send Kirschner writing prompts based on at least one of the source materials, along with their referent. These prompts should lend themselves to a physicalized response or étude. Kirschner then culls twelve to fourteen writing prompts out of the submissions and sends those prompts to the devising ensemble. Two written responses are due at each of the first six to seven rehearsals, depending on how many writing prompts Kirschner selects.

Five performers sit at a long folding card table on stage and laugh.

Bennett Kirschner, Mary Langley, Tricia Anderson, T Clark, Lauren Wells. Devising facilitation by Bennett Kirschner.

Ensemble members are asked to spend no more than fifteen minutes working on their written responses, and to “treat their pen like a river,” allowing their first thought to take them wherever it will lead them, without edits or censorship. This freewriting practice is based on Kirschner’s mother’s pedagogy as a playwriting professor.

At rehearsal, the ensemble sits in a circle, and each member shares their written responses to the assigned writing prompts. Ensemble members take notes on each other’s work and after everyone has shared, discuss all the prompt responses in order to collectively decide which one to four responses they would like to create into a physical étude.

Members then break up into groups and take about an hour to create a physical response to the selected written response. This can be a faithful recreation or a complete departure, as long as it honors an impulse or vision that was in the writing. These études sometimes combine more than one written response. After an hour has passed, groups share out their physical études, which are recorded on camera to create a depository. This process is repeated twice over the course of a single rehearsal, once for each writing prompt. Kirschner credits his time shadowing Goat in the Road for much of this technique.

After the initial six to seven rehearsals have concluded, the devising ensemble has a rich depository of settings, characters, relationships, and conflicts that they can lift from as they begin building their story. From there, ensemble members have a week to review the depository and return with a list of settings, characters, and scenarios they want to explore.

A performer holds a planter overhead while three other performers look on in various states of confusion.

Rebecca Greaves, Frenchie Faith, Lydia Stein, and Tyler McGuckin in PROTRUSION by Intramural Theater, presented at The Backyard Ballroom. Directed by Bennett Kirschner. Scenic Design by Sarah VanDerMeer. Set Design by Jane Tardo. Costume Design by Leah Floyd. Lighting Design by Missy Martinez. Sound Design by Bobby Burvant and Jeremy Webber. Photo by Louis Lampcov.

In the next rehearsal, everyone gets back in a circle and shares their lists to find overlaps in what was most popular and what resonated the most, which creates a distilled depository. From there, ensemble members once again break up into groups and spend forty-five minutes to an hour creating story outlines from scratch, drawing elements from the depository. These outlines are shared with the collective, then the process is repeated, four times in total. In the most recent devising process, the collective ended up with twelve outlines.

Next, the collective has a day of discussions, talking through all the outlines and expressing which ones are most exciting to members, narrowing the selection down to four outlines. The next rehearsal provides space for another group conversation, which results in the selection of one outline, which will be developed into the new play. Finally, the devising ensemble meets for three or so more rehearsals to expand that outline into scenes, having actors in character improvise those scenes a couple times. As the collective selects and builds the outline, their decisions are guided by real-life constraints, including budget, logistical feasibility, and who the actors are in the room.

Once the devising process is complete, the designated playwright(s) turn the outline into a script, which is shared with the devising ensemble in at least two workshops to receive feedback that informs script development. Finally, the collective reconvenes for a several-week rehearsal process leading up to the show’s premiere. The COVID pandemic dramatically changed Intramural’s devising process timeline. In the past, the collective spent just thirty days from the first writing prompts to opening night. For the upcoming show, devising work began in August 2023, and the show will premiere in May 2024.

Democracy is really slow.

It is important to highlight that every step of this decision making is consensus-based. Kirschner is a facilitator of the process, and he takes his role in setting an example of egoless-ness seriously, by not being overly attached to or precious with the ideas he submits to the group. All those iterative discussions take time, and as company member Elizabeth Frenchie Faith quips, “Democracy is really slow.”

Davis elaborates, “Especially for people who are new to the company or don’t know everyone as well, it takes a while to feel like people will listen to you and your ideas matter, which is heightened by any differences in race, orientation, or gender. It’s intangible, but creating a space where people feel truly welcome as their authentic selves is important, and that takes time.” Kirschner is attentive to making sure all members of the group feel encouraged to voice their opinions. Mary Langley, who joined the company this year, says, “Intramural organizes that space in a way that feels safe and supportive. How things are supposed to be done, how conflict was supposed to be handled, what the goal was for the collective, was all clear from the beginning.”

As much as the devising process is designed to create a play, it also requires ensemble members to vulnerably participate in a creative negotiation. Ensemble member Madi Zins, who also joined the company this year, says, “Consent doesn’t have to mean you are enthusiastically for whatever decision is being made. It’s about what feels safest for everybody in the room, and what everyone is willing to try. It’s a moment of collaboration, listening, and hearing where people are.” Listening is a word that came up repeatedly in interviews with company members, as a skill they honed throughout the devising process. Everyone’s ideas are valuable in this non-hierarchical way of making, and while individuality is necessarily forsaken for the group’s collective decision making, every ensemble member can point to something of their own in the finished product. Working with Intramural has not only made its ensemble members better listeners, but also encouraged them towards more risk taking, and feeling more confident about their artistry.

Taking time to build every element of the show together creates an impressive bond of trust that leads to a more symbiotic rehearsal process down the line. Company member and sound designer Bobby Burvant describes the “liberated surreal creative wildness” that emerges after participants dare to diverge from the prompts. He says, “I love the way that once somebody does it and it inspires us, then everybody starts to loosen up a little and just writes what they’re thinking, instead of trying to fit within the parameters of the prompt.” This creativity feeds off itself, and after two to three rehearsals of sharing prompt responses, it creates a “special safe playground of a container” to “bring ideas into space, and trust other people to play around with them,” according to Zins. She continues, “It allowed me to push what I could be doing a little bit farther and try things a little bit weirder and be a little bit more raw with things I was thinking and feeling.”

The as-yet-untitled devised show has the largest ensemble to date, with a whopping seven members in the devising collective. Having more voices in the room for this process led to less time to consider each individual’s contributions, but the pleasant surprise of several new talented writers joining the group.

Four performers seated at a table look upward at a worm prop.

Joshua James, Bennett Kirschner, Lydia Stein, and Frenchie Faith in Apostles of Everest by Intramural Theater, presented at The Fortress of Lushington. Directed by Jon Greene. Set Design by Kevin Griffith. Puppet Design by Sarah VanDerMeer. Costume Design by Leah Floyd. Lighting Design by Bunny Lushington. Sound Design by Bobby Burvant and Jeremy Webber. Photo by Mary Claire Davis.

As Intramural grows, collective members are hoping to be able to increase stipends for everyone involved, and to find more ways to expand their community to make the theatre company better reflect its home city. Davis states, “We’re in a majority Black city, and we’re a majority white transplant theatre company. I hope we can continue to make a unique type of theatre, but our audiences can grow and diversify, and our collaborators too.”

The Intramural aesthetic is hard to define, as it is a constantly shifting reflection of the individual tastes of the people who form the current collective. Kirschner says Intramural plays with not giving audiences a clean catharsis, making them feel implicated rather than absolved. “The aesthetic is never realist, leaning into the theatricality of it. Wires are always visible to some extent, with opportunities for alienating the audience, making them aware of themselves.” Burvant elaborates, “It is often surreal, often existential, and always curious, layered. It doesn’t try to hit you over the head with messages but delivers nuanced, multi-themed ideas. It is profoundly expressive on the part of the creators.” 

Intramural is an extremely heady group of humans, whose devised works in particular reflect the fact that they are more about process than product, although that process is expertly designed to produce a production-ready product every time. The shows are always weird, and intentionally so. Collective members speak passionately about what a positive experience they have creating them, thanks to Kirschner’s honed process with its structured framework. As an audience member, it is inspiring to attend a work of theatre and palpably feel the joy of its own making, like its creators are letting audiences in on an elaborate inside joke. Even if you don’t “get it,” everyone is welcomed into the immersive environment of an Intramural world.

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark


Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First