Devised theatre - Why does it take so long?
As we start at the very beginning of the devising process for our new show, we’re looking back at the importance of giving time to develop devised work.
When Seemia began meeting for weekly rehearsals - every Monday for four hours in a dark October in 2015 - we thought “We’ll have a show by April 2016.”
We were enthusiastic and driven, but this was the first time we had worked collectively after 8 months of training together with Song of the Goat Theatre, and our excitement and naivety may have got the better of us. It took just under two years until we premiered Evros | The Crossing River at The Monkey House, Camden Fringe in August 2017.
I’ll start with a timeline to our development and then we can begin to dissect our devising process, which, yep, you guessed it, hasn’t finished…
OCT 2015 - BEGINNINGS OF RESEARCH
MAR 2016 - 3 Day Residency in Sussex
JUNE 206 - a private 30 minute Work-in-Progress
JULY 2016 - 10 Minute Scratch at Battersea Arts Centre
SEPT 2016 - 3 day residency in London
AUTUMN 2016 - 10 Week Programme of workshops with Marylebone Project
DEC 2016 - FIRST R&D at Arcola Lab for BAMER Artists
MAY 2017 - SECOND R&D Arcola Lab & ACE GFTA Funding
AUG 2017 - Premiere at Camden Fringe Festival
FEB 2018 - Evros | The Crossing River at VAULT Festival
AUG 2018 - Evros at Edinburgh Fringe
We’re into our third year of developing Evros and it is only now we feel we’re diving deep into these stories before we perform at Bruford@Summerhall at Edinburgh Festival Fringe this August.
With traditional text based theatre, the writing is hidden, quite often behind closed doors, with invited audiences and rehearsed readings, until it’s big day. Countless drafts later. I suppose the same goes for devised theatre, but our blank pages are rehearsal studios, and our ink is the ensemble and our bodies.
That cold October of 2015, we knew instantly the theme of our - then untitled - show would be about the refugee crisis. We continued our physical and vocal theatre training, occasionally inspired by pieces of news articles, videos. Never attempting to recreate, but to touch the souls behind the dehumanising digits, endless numbers and, particularly in 2015, images of shipwrecks and lifeless life-vests.
We began contacting writers and creatives who had fled conflict, some we interviewed, other we expressed an interest in physically exploring and devising around their poetry. But simply gathering all these stories of dangerous journeys, the reasons behind their leaving and their lives beforehand took time. Our initial form was mostly physical theatre and music, with very little text. It wasn’t until our first residency at Arcola that we all felt a shift in our work, a need to change in how we perform these stories.
We quite often didn’t realise how important it is firstly to just tune in. Our training together focuses very much on becoming an ensemble, which is as important to our devising process as the material and inspiration we bring to the drawing board… or rehearsal studio. Only once we had physically, vocally and energetically warmed up and tuned in did we begin to present a foundation for these stories, and begin to blend letting the text sit upon song. But we also needed to be in sync and to listen to each other to allow ourselves to delve in to the darkest parts of these tragedies.
I remember one rehearsal where we had been exploring with rhythm and music in the morning - we were really listening to each other. In the afternoon we started with an exercise which asked us to walk in the studio, come together in partners, and exchange the power of who guides and who follows. Certain situations experienced by people we had been researching began to creep into our movement, changing power dynamics within the pairs, and the group as a whole. The energy in the room was heavy, and all the movements were leading to a physical and emotional torture. We revisited these movements with a text we found fit the actions and began to mould into our dramaturgical structure. This was only achievable for many reasons; the fact that we had a long established theatrical vocabulary we use, which we trained regularly; the collective research into people, stories, texts, images and videos; and the space to play and fail, not be scared to get it wrong.
Both Arcola Theatre and Theatre Deli have been integral in our devising of Evros and no doubt Seemia’s development. These moments of support through being given studio space via residencies and the free reign to play and create without financial burden on the company has such a lifting energy on an emerging ensemble. In these rare moments, we took the opportunity to share on multiple occasions our various stages of development, at first with our nearest and dearest friends, family and fellow creatives. It wasn’t until much later, after two years, that we decided it was time to begin sharing work to industry professionals, always being open to feedback and criticisms to make the work as strong as possible.
Through undergoing any devising process, I understand the cliche of how an artist is never satisfied with ‘the finished product’. (I suppose first reason is that I hate the idea that art is a product, a commodity, but this is also a very useful outlook when you consider marketing and programming). Back to the point, this word “finished”, is something that always seems difficult to accept in regards to theatre, something so active and alive. Every time a piece of theatre is performed, its not edited or framed, the liveliness is what makes it so exciting, but also so refreshing. We as artists and performers have the opportunity to keep perfecting and adjusting to make a show the best it has ever been, not only for the verisimilitude of the characters, or narrative, or even the ensemble, but most importantly for the audience.
One phrase comes to mind in terms of giving space and time to a creative process;
“Give Time - How sour sweet-music is, when time is broke, and no proportion kept.” - Richard II, William Shakespeare
We can’t wait to begin this new process at Theatre Deli’s The Old Library this Spring, to listen, play, fail and learn all over again with a brand new theme, and we hope to see you all at some point in our new journey.
Photographs courtesy of Ala Tayebi and Kamla Mostofi.