Friday, September 07, 2012

An answer to Maureen Lipman

It's taken me a week to get round to doing this - I'm responding to something Maureen Lipman said on last week's Review Show - so you may not be able to see it on i-player any more - but here's the link anyway.

She was talking about a show called Wonderland by Vanishing Point - a devised piece about internet pornography (pictured).  It's a brave and important subject, but I haven't seen the show and I can't really comment on it.  What I can comment on is Maureen's discussion of the devising process.  She talked about devised theatre "getting endless rehearsal time....  while the rest of us have to do with three weeks", and stated that "you get great performances, but you never get a play".

Let's talk about the second point first, because in a way it's more important.  Devised theatre, as it's currently understood in the UK, is quite a new thing.  That's not to say that the form is new, of course - commedia dell'arte, African and Asian forms have depended on improvisation for a very long time - that's why some of the most important devised work to impact on our theatre emanated from Africa (I'm thinking of Sizwe Banzi is Dead, The Island  and Woza Albert! in particular - plays which were possible because of the improvisational skills of African actors - and which I would have thought, as canonical pieces, more than fit the description "a play").  Mike Leigh, who Maureen herself mentioned, was an early pioneer in Britain - though his methods are quite idiosyncratic - and he makes very carefully crafted, wonderfully constructed pieces.

She might have had a point if she'd been talking ten years ago.  Back then, we were making our first devised pieces, like Mappa Mundi.   It was almost an act of faith that we should make the play entirely by improvisation and discussion - I suppose I regarded it as a political statement about equality in intercultural performance. As a result there were Lipmanesque performances and great visuals - but the overall structure seemed lacking.  We weren't the only ones - lots of companies were working in this way, and the results were very much in the world Maureen described.

But not any more.  These days, lots of devising companies collaborate with writers.  We did on Re-Orientations: Mahesh Dattani, Paul Sirett and Brian Woolland were very much part of the process.  It doesn't mean that spontaneous improvisation and multiple voices aren't very much part of the process - in some ways, more so, actually - but we are also stepping back from the improvisations to think about structure, theme, character development and good old story.  The last few days, I've been revisiting improvised material from our spring workshop of Consumed in Shanghai, and comparing it with notes from research, discussions, interviews and feedback.  It's leading to some whole new ideas for the play's development, and also to a serious consolidation of what was achieved.  None of this turns me into a conventional playwright, or invalidates the workshop.  Quite the opposite - the play is made possible by the workshop.  It will be rehearsed (and re-written again - by everybody) early in the New Year.  Watch this space.

This may be what Maureen meant by "they have months of rehearsal time" - though I doubt it.  In fact, our workshop was three weeks long.  The rehearsals won't be much more - we aren't funded to the level where we can work for months, much as we would like to.  I suspect that our devising process is actually cheaper and faster than commissioning a writer and then rehearsing their script.  Not that something being cheap is a measure of anything in the arts, I should add!

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