Session called by: Rebecca Manson Jones of Just Jones &
Attended by: various including Kate McGrath, Phelim McDermott, Alwyn, Sarah G, and several others whose names I didn’t catch, sorry.
I called this session in response to some other sessions which I heard being called. I called it out of curiosity and with a leaning towards wanting to understand why the devised theatre-making (or the D&D) community might be considered to be “vegans”.
It seems to me that the question follows on from the “ownership” theme which came up early in the session calling, but is also linked to legitimacy of the work as it is viewed in the theatre community (linked at least in my mind to Chris Campbell’s opening remarks). Is devising work’s “poor cousin status” connected to its lack of visibility beyond the time in which it is performed? For me, some of the most exciting, important and enduring performances I have been part of and have attended since 1990, are those for which there is no conventional performance script. After the event itself, there is not much record except in the memories of the people who witnessed or made the work.
Whereas, with the ubiquity of the published text by Oberon, Methuen, Nick Herne etc I house a few undistinguished playscripts as part of the production programme. Some plays which I missed I can easily pick up on Amazon. Those plays remain on sale, they can be accessed continually. (It was pointed out to me that many more devising and multi-media performances are recorded via DVD than previously and can be found via Youtube these days - but I’d still argue you don’t see people buying them in the National or Royal Court bookshops, onsale at Waterstones etc).
It is still easier for writers than devisors to evidence their work to those who haven’t witnessed it in performance and for some of those scripts to be revived. Hybrid works like Pool No Water are credited to Mark Ravenhill and are revived by companies other than Frantic Assembly who originally made it. (I know a performer who was part of the original devising process who was asked to audition – with mixed feelings - for a revival of this show she’d already helped create and then didn’t get the gig – weird viewed from several angles.)
My experience is that devised work is often regarded as a poor relation to written texts partly because of its even more transient nature than the written script. I wondered if that contributes to the issues of legitimacy of devised work. As a director who has made devised and text based work, I had forgotten that the divide between the two worlds is still so clearly defined. I use both strands to make work – it’s what suits me.
[A bit later in the week, I met another senior figure in literary management, and was amazed to discover he had never heard of D&D. When explained - especially with the “butcher amongst vegans” anecdote - , he thought the principle very interesting.]
A few years ago, when getting new plays on was becoming increasingly hard in the light of budget cuts, I was in a discussion about longevity with “new writers”. Did anyone think about the future or posterity of the work, or were they writing for the moment? I wanted to ask the same of devisors now. I wanted to ask makers of this kind of work if a life beyond the production matters to them? And how would they feel about other people who weren’t involved in the original production reviving their work in other manifestations later on.
In the end I think we covered these three themes
• Does having a record of the performance in something like a text-based published script add legitimacy to the work?
• Do devisors think differently about the future of their work from text-based playwrights?
• How would devisors react to other people/companies wanting to revive their work or to reviving works themselves?
The following is the best I can do from scrappy note-taking. Apologies if your comments are bowdlerised or omitted.
Q - Do written texts command more respect because they are written down?
Q - Do they justify revival?
Caryl Churchill it could be argued writes up a devising process in some of her plays but brings to it a genius for unifying the work.
I asked KM about Will Adamsdale’s work. Would he ever accord the rights to someone else to perform it, as I believe there have been revivals of by other performers of Tim Crouch’s “My Arm”? KM thought it unlikely at this point. She mentioned that agents have contacted her about onward productions of work that has been made in collaboration between a playwright and a company and each time it has to be referred back to all of the collaborators. Phelim mentioned that Improbable had been approached by a band in Hamburg to remake Shockheaded Peter without the Tiger Lilies and Improbable collaborated on that and kept their artistic link with it. I mentioned that Oily Cart have licensed one piece of their work to be made in the US but this in response to a request. Not something they have considered doing for themselves.
I asked him whether hypothetically he’d consider granting the rights to other performers to revive 70 Hill Lane. Phelim said it was his story and that would feel weird. There is such a strong emotional attachment to the process, could it be given over to other people and what would be the point?
There seemed to be a theme that much devised work was very close to the originator’s personal experience so detaching the lived experience, and the original making process from the performance might just render any revival a cardboard facsimile re-enactment thing.
Phelim (?) considered that he might go back to a subject to revisit it if there was unfinished business. Looking at that work 10 years on - might bring something new – watching other people in those roles might be interesting.
We agreed that most of the time, the people making the work were interested in its theme at this particular time of making, it was a personal or public response to the world as it is now and posterity never entered their heads. The audience is here and now. Playwrights who joined the discussion including Sarah G commented that sometimes playwrights have to think of the future because they have no guarantee the play will be put on now, even if under commission. Devisors tend to know when the show is planned for, where, when and why it will take place. Someone mentioned that Shakespeare had no sense of the future or revival. He wrote and performed and the future was another story.
The idea of documenting and notating the work like Laban notation was mentioned. There seemed to be a concensus that preserving the work like Becket’s work would not be favoured. Phelim felt that it would be important to him if revival were ever to take place that people understood the energy that inspired the show, the process that went into its making and that a revival might look, sound and feel quite different, rather than being a re-enactment of the original.
I asked whether a sense of legacy was important for future theatre-makers and academics? I think it would be great if more people could be aware of this work in the future so that when Performance is studied and this past 20 years is looked at, it isn’t just the published texts which are focused on. War Horse will be remembered and celebrated but will all the work of all those companies which lead us up to War Horse be known about? I used the example of suffragette plays mostly unpublished, frequently not very good, but important in their time and for us to remember that they happened. Someone mentioned that some companies do make source books for their shows and sell them (was it the Wooster Group) so these works are taught on university courses and in drama schools.
Q - does the British Library contact devising companies for a copy of their scripts?
We talked about archiving live performance and how we can do that better than with a fixed camera video. Capturing the specificity and rigour of the process seems to be important. Re -creation could kill the magic – is it possible to repaint a Picasso? Is devised work another genre from a written-down play, that is even more transient than a text-based play. Is part of its essence?
If the originators went back to a work later, they’d probably do it differently - playwrights often rewrite for a revival if they’re still alive (directors/dramaturgs edit texts).
Can these devised works evolve or is the continuum like the folk tradition in that each generation refinds the discoveries and deals with them in a new way, with the new production tools and other conditions available to them?
Perhaps a devised work might be revised 30 years on from its creation because the time seems apposite. A revisit might throw new light.
Phelim mentioned that Opera’s are commissioned to be created so that they can be done again (perhaps musical too). Nature of the genre.
Playwrights now hope their plays will last because it may not be picked up at the time of writing. And it can take so long for the play to be written, then workshopped,....
WHOEVER PUTS IT ON IS THE ONLY PERSON WHO COULD HAVE.
Often with productions what we are left with is script, photos, reviews, publicity materials. The devised productions which may be celebrated may be the ones where a case book is created. In the digital age, perhaps we have the possibility of better, cheaper documenting of process and production which may put these productions into a debate about work 5, 10, 20 years on.
Wooster Group, Philip Glass were mentioned, Pina Bausch who kept revisiting her work and whose work continues after her death.
Phelim mentioned that Spirit produced by the Royal Court never got a published play text as anticipated for sale as the programme because the script wasn’t finalised. By the time it was finalised on tour, the publishers weren’t interested because without the door sales it wouldn’t have sold in sufficient numbers. There was some consideration of how it would be watching the originators perform that “play” now or whether a younger team could do it. Phelim imagined it would have to be a different way into it...however hard it is documented... the nuances in the realisation would elude verbal capture... video helps a bit, but turning it over to new people.... hard to know if it could be revived.
A playwright mentioned that revivals are less troublesome in that way because by the time the script is handed over for a first performance, there is already some emotional detachment, the play has been given over.
Who would make such a revival? -
• would it be other devisors or a director auditioning for a company?
• It could be ghastly – could be the worst sort of flattery ending up in a grotesque of the original, like bad Ayckbourn.
• It could be reproduced brilliantly if it was more in the spirit of the folk tradition because it was passed on, reinterpreted, enjoyed, passed on....
And then Kronos got in the way and it was over, but perhaps it’s not over.