As part of my teaching in the QUT BFA Drama, where the focus is on generating new work, there’s a unit of learning focused on collaborative devising of a new performance. It’s a real challenge for both students and tutors, but it’s always an often an unexpectedly rewarding experience.
This year I had a group of 13 students, one of 6 similar ensembles, formed randomly. The aim is not for tutors to make a show at them or for them but rather to work together with them to create something that none of us could do on our own.
It’s a difficult balance to strike. It involves a shifting of perceptions of power. I want the students to own what they do in content and form, but the reason I’m in the room is that I am supposed to know how to do it.
I’m upfront with them when I say there’s no one way of collaboratively devising theatre – that’s the defining quality of this mode of creative practice. If there was ‘one way of doing it’ I’d teach it to them. There isn’t. So I don’t. While I have a stronger sense of milestones and turning points in collaborative processes we always have to work it out as we go.
The feeling of things being out of your control, and getting used to not knowing what’s going to come next takes some getting used to. I’ve come to understand that the first thing you’re helping a group of students with is generating a framework for a process.
I won’t describe in detail how the group ended up divining their starting point, but inspired by Bare, a play by NZ playwright Toa Fraser, among other plays the group had studied this group wanted to explore comedy and the idea that lots of mini narratives might end up forming larger patterns. An umbrella became a key prop. We went into the city to observe real life people about to cross the street, and saw the potential of simple, non-verbal gestures to release stories.
As we began to experiment with minimalism and non-verbal performance in workshops, influences emerged such as Jaques Tati and silent film, alongside more mainstream fare like a selection of Pixar’s shorts.
The advent of Composed Theatre
Initial exercises were non-verbal. One student soundtracked in-class exercises with some Satie, and it worked beautifully. The show was developing its own feel. I taught them how to map music in layperson’s terms so you can wrap your performance around it (to create the impression of the reverse). With text relegated, and the success of stories so small it came to me that music might be a useful resource for our potential play’s framework. Copyright laws and lack of budget precluded the use of anything but creative commons works for our performance. So I thought I’d compose something that’d be of use – we could easily get rid of it later.
A playwright facilitating a group process could bring knowledge of story structure to the table. I did this, but also saw no reason to exclude my musical instincts in assisting the group to discover and shape their ideas.
I didn’t particularly want to impose a particular working method on the group, and certainly didn’t begin the process with any preconceptions, but a facilitator needs to provide a group with something to bounce off: an offer. It may be refuted, adapted, or adopted wholesale. My first offer was to de-emphasise text. Not to exclude it, but rather to see how much could be done without it, and discover what might grow in its place. It wasn’t until the process and product took shape that I realised this whole thing was an experiment in collaboratively devising a piece of Composed Theatre.
What is Composed Theatre? According to Matthias Rebstock and David Roesner, creatives working on the theatre stage in this mode ‘approach theatrical stage and its means of expression as musical material. They treat voice, gesture, movement, light, sound, image, design, and other features of theatrical production according to musical principles and compositional techniques and apply musical thinking to the performance as a whole’ (2012, 9).
Leonard Bernstein says ‘composition means putting together, yes, but a putting together of elements so they add up to an organic whole’ (1960:57). Put like this, I can see how a Composed Theatre approach might be a reasonable response to a group who wants ‘larger patterns to emerge from smaller fragments’.
Using the constant ‘blip’ of the pedestrian crossing warning as the pulse, I created a piece of music with three notes (though initially just percussion, I changed it to piano notes in response to Satie: a C suspended chord so it was emotionally ‘neutral’). One note fell every three bars, one note every four, one note every five and every so often they’d totally coincide. I added a sprinkling of other sounds (cityscape and some backwards acoustic guitar towards the end) so the students could orient themselves in time within such a featureless piece of music. It was thrown together on an ipad and a very basic PC looping program and was full of technical mistakes.
This piece of music is no great shakes as a composition: it’s from the middle of the show when the rain occurs, so it’s the most eventful moment of an uneventful soundtrack. Long piano notes and rain sounds precede the combined 3, 4 and 5 notes/beats, which arrive about half way through.
We broke up into groups and tried to reduce the gestural stories into the barest possible number of steps, all in the moment before speech, with significant pauses inbetween, and then ‘locked’ the gestures to one of these numbered groups (3,4,5). It was a bit of a challenge, but had potential. It offered happy accidents and surprising interactions. It also served as a system-based set of constraints that would enable the group to generate, shape and coordinate focus across a large ensemble, without necessarily having to rely on an external ‘director’. As well as a kind of stealthy virtuosity, it also facilitated the group’s idea of multiple stories coalescing into larger patterns without the need for verbal cues.
Working through form first, themes gradually emerged of connection and isolation, but content wasn’t discussed in great detail. We had a setting, and eventually arrived at some (loosely defined) characters. We were more focussed on the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ than the ‘why’, and tacitly wanted to position the audience in our shoes, as observers in King George Square, witnessing tiny moments in people’s lives as they waited to cross a road.
What we’d done, using music as a spine, was to develop a system-based mode of collaboratively devising this work. The device suited our particular circumstances – both fictional and performative. Such a bold choice prescribed a potential palette, and made certain decisions much easier down the track. It was a complex road to an ostensibly simple solution. If we’d made that decision too early without exploring all options, we would have short-changed the creative process. If we’d made it much later we’d have had only a bold framework, but nothing to fill it with. We came pretty close to that outcome, actually.
The group also wanted to play with illusion and transformation, and this manifested in all sorts of intentions to play with projection and other methods . (We ended up addressing this desire with something very simple, but very effective: an umbrella changing from black to red). This instructed the structure of the piece in which an ordinary world becomes extraordinary, and then returns to its former status, potentially changed. Or maybe not. As we worked with various scene fragments, actual or anticipated, they responded well to this kind of (pretty standard) narrative structure.
This is where the umbrellas came into play. In early stages of development, they’d helped us generate mini-narratives in terms of theme, character, relationship and action, but they’d kind of stalled as a creative device – now, we’d decided a rainstorm visits the crossing, the umbrellas come out and therefore prompt action that would otherwise not have occurred.
They’re great machines, umbrellas, and a whole bunch of them onstage look pretty cool, which is classic no-budget approach to the devised ensemble work – design by default. The group experimented with a choreographic approach to this sequence and a group member played Debussy’s Claire De Lune as a place-holder. The group revised the ‘music-mapping’ exercise for this piece and it worked well.
I was excited by this Gallic flavour and being a bit of a nerd, researched around it and found that Debussy knew Satie, and when Satie died, over 100 umbrellas were found in his squalid apartment. While it’s fairly tangential, I like coincidences like this: it makes me feel like the show you’re developing is speaking to something beyond its immediate frame of aesthetic reference. The group chose to top and tail the show with two live images, of unattended umbrellas. The symbolic order of the show then took focus as we traced those images through our succeeding scenes and actions.
The stage manager took notes in order to compile a prompt script from which lights and sound cues could be called, but no actual ‘script’ was generated and shared by the cast – whiteboard diagrams, lists, and embodied ensemble actions anchored to music were the order of the day. The pen was held by many. I like having no script, because the moment everybody starts looking at scripts, they stop looking at each other. Staying away from text allowed the ensemble to develop itself more immediately.
I discouraged the use of video as a mode of documentation not only because the work was shifting so rapidly but also because theatre looks like shit on video and I wanted to keep morale up. Not all the students were confident with working rhythmically, but they taught each other how to do it, as they practiced, they grew more familiar with the music, the material, and each other.
I kept stressing the need for a level of virtuosity. Nobody comes to see people perform actions that look like they’ve been made up in a couple of hours. They want to see people do difficult things skilfully – things which mean more than they seem to. Live performance is only there for a moment, so you’d better make it worth your while.
Therefore within the limited time we had there was an element of drill and training. The joy of initial discovery becomes the rather less joyful search for methods to rediscover ways of simulating that joy. This gave both the fictional and performative frames of the work more definition, commitment and evenness of style. This is a challenge as performers, (especially young performers) often try to do too much onstage – it takes time to learn the power of simplicity singularity and stillness – to answer the question ‘what’s the least I can do to tell this story’ actually requires a lot of labour.
As it was, the show went beautifully. It was really only run in its entirety in the two tech/dress sessions we had, and then performed twice for an audience, who loved the elegance and tenderness of its moments and patterns.
But then like a rainstorm, it was gone. What was left?
Bernstein, Leonard. 1960. The joy of music. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Rebstock, Matthias and David Roesner. 2012. Composed Theatre: Aesthetics, practices, processes. Bristol; Chicago: Intellect.
Images Natalie Callaghan, used with permission from photographer & subjects