Five top tips for Devising Theatre

Devising Theatre is daunting and when I was a Drama student I found it one of the most difficult elements of the course. As an adult theatre practitioner, it is something I rarely do. I do a lot of script work, I’ve worked in professional and amateur theatres with scripts. With that we might devise short pieces to help explore characters or scenarios. But these are more improvisations. They don’t carry that same weight as a true devised performance does. 

A true and proper performance carries and communicates meaning, plot, themes, characters, issues. It does so in the same way that a script does. Except in devised theatre, the work comes from the students not from an experienced and mature author like a play does.

It seems a huge amount to ask of a young person, just 15 years old, to devise a deep and meaningful performance full of rich language, visual metaphors or complex plot lines. Especially when only two or three years before those same young people were probably devising theatre that involved lots of action, people fighting and no actual story. This is certainly what happens when I allow my Key Stage 3 students free rein to devise a performance!

This is the problem though. At Key Stage 3, regardless of the stimulus for devising, my students find it hard to create anything more than moments of action. Situations like someone robbing a shop, someone finding out they’ve got an terminal illness or someone failing an exam. They are all moments of action but none of them are stories. So my advice which I find myself repeating all time is; what happens before and after the event? Let’s turn that event into a story. Let’s find the central character and tell the story of how they got to this place in their life and what happens next in their life after this moment.

Having thought about this, I wanted to write my top five tips I give to students making that step up in maturity to help them devise more challenging, interesting and engaging devising theatre.

Top Tip 1: Don’t look for events, look for the stories.

My first top tip is what I’ve just said. In what stimulus you receive you will be able to think up loads of events or moments of action that could relate to it. The events themselves will not create good drama, but exploring those events further to discover why they happened, how they happened or the motivation behind them will open up the drama into something much more engaging.

Top Tip 2: Make it personal

When you have a personal interest in the message that you want to communicate in your performance, you are far more invested in it. You are more likely to enjoy the process and be passionate about the performance. If you are telling a story that involves you, someone you know or something you are passionate about, then you are going to want to not only tell this story but you are going to want to tell it well.

Top Tip 3: Question your objectives

Once you have a theme, story or idea in mind, keep questioning every new thing that comes into the piece of theatre you are devising. Question it’s relevance to the central idea of what you want to communicate. It is important to justify every decision you make in the devising process through making it link to your core objective for the piece you are creating.

That doesn’t mean that once you set your core objective, or even your core idea, that it has to stay that way and cannot change. By questioning your everything new coming into it, you might decide it sheds a new light on your original idea and you want to change what you’re doing in some way to reflect that.

Top Tip 4: Explore, explore and explore some more

It is hard not to simply create a plot between you as a group, then block it, rehearse it and perform it. That process of devising will create a performance and get results. However, what you will create will lack depth, reflection and challenge. My top tip here would be to explore the content was much as possible. Exploring the stimuli, the characters and the ideas is like planning an essay, and the best planned essays always get more marks. So explore everything and create as much material as possible, which you can then shift through and piece together to make a performance. Create improvisations, hotseat characters and develop physical images of ideas. It is all material that you can include in your performance.

Top Tip 5: Let the genre find you

This is a bit of a contentious one. There are two schools of thought here. You either devise a performance to the practitioner / genre. Or you create the work and see which practitioner / genre you think would be best to communicate your message. I think you need to let your work make the decisions. As you explore, create and devise this performance, there will be lots of different types of Drama you’ll use to make it. As you progress through the process it will become more obvious to you how you want to tell the story.

Bonus Top Tip: Don’t forget your audience

I’ve seen it done loads of time and each time no one means it to happen, but somewhere in the process of devising your performance you forget who it is for. Well, it isn’t that you forget who it is for but you start making it for yourself. And of course, all theatre is made for ourselves, but we aren’t the ones who are going to be buying it, watching it or assessing it! You need to remember that everything you do is for an audience. That whilst you may understand the piece of theatre, because it is yours, the audience must also understand the piece of theatre.