What If…Devised Theatre Moved To The Mainstream of Theatre Making?

by Rachel Chavkin

in What If

(Learn more about the What If…? Project and what comes next)

What if…devised theatre moved from the margins to the mainstream of theatre making?

“Devised Theatre” resists easy definition, as was made clear at Arena Stage’s New Play Development Project Devising Convening in 2010. In fact the artists and companies present took pride in the vast variances of process and style of work. So from the outset this is a very difficult question to answer, as it assumes there is a solid and identifiable look and feel to this work.

I answer this question as the Artistic Director of a devising ensemble that writes all of its work collaboratively, typically over a 1-3 year process (depending on funding). And therefore I will demonstrate a biased towards ensemble-based creation, but acknowledge that devising artists and companies come in many shapes and sizes, including solo artists.

I think it is safe to say that devising is inherently less hierarchical than “mainstream” work. Whether it is a playwright’s text, or a director’s vision, or a leading performer, mainstream theatre often seems to have a single driving force around which all other aspects of a production organize themselves. This lends itself to a coherence that many audiences, producers and artists understandably prefer.

This is generally not the case in devised work. Design elements can carry as much or more weight as performers, spoken text is often only one fragment of what makes up a devised “play,” and storytelling sometimes takes a back seat to pure experience. At early points in the TEAM’s process it can be hard to tell what anyone’s discipline is because everyone shares the duties of playwright and dramaturg, director and performer. And we are far more traditional in our roles than many other devising artists and companies.

At Arena’s New Play Development Conference in January 2011 a panel spoke about the future of 21st century theater, and the term “hybrid-artist” arose repeatedly. If devised theatre moved to the mainstream of theatre making, this would become the rule vs. the exception. Performers would constantly write their own material, directors would consistently work in one or more design discipline, designers would grace the stage.

Perhaps the person this shift would affect most in the American mainstream theater as it now stands is the playwright. And this is potentially frightening, knowing how hard writers fight to simply make a decent living at their craft. At the conference many playwrights seemed to exhibit a suspicion of what one writer called “the current vogue for devised work.” (Another devising artist and I met eyes in humorous wonder during this particular talk at the idea that we were getting an unfair share of resources.)

However I believe that – as new plays and devised work in the U.K. indicates – playwrights and devising artists can live, and indeed thrive, along side each other.

I teach Directing at Playwrights Horizons Theater School within NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Our devising and directing programs are currently separate. However, I work no less as a “director” when I’m devising with the TEAM, than when I’m working on Chekhov or a new play. And I know that both areas of my work have grown from the dialectic between devising and interpreting. We encourage our students to shift back and forth, and most importantly, to therefore take no rules of practice for granted – whether they are performing or writing or designing or directing. They are forced to consistently re-imagine the type of environment in which they want to create.

If devising moved to the mainstream, this would become a hallmark of the pre-production stage in a process. Producers would sit down with the artists, whatever the discipline, and ask how they want to approach MAKING. Unions would have to make significant adjustments, and this would be enormously difficult since a union’s power in part rests so much on the shared needs of a specific group. Devising takes longer and we’d have to accept that a three-week rehearsal period is not enough. Rules and practices that fit well for one project, simply might not translate. I think this would be healthy for institutions, though also place an increased demand on their time and resources. But from my limited experience working on new plays, this holds no less true for that world; one writer’s and play’s needs are vastly different from another’s.

Emerging audiences – particularly those coming of age now in an aggressively chaotic and multitasking world – would likely find more theatre that speaks to them being presented at mainstream houses. Devised theatre, perhaps because of its non-hierarchical tendencies, does often speak more viscerally to the Internet generation than a streamlined and tighter play. It’s simply more parallel to their experience of the world. Institutions would have to ensure affordable tickets ($20 or less) to open their doors to these audiences. I especially like the “pay your age” trend.

If devised theatre moved to the mainstream it would likely still appeal to a small segment of the population than Wicked, in the way an independent film will likely never draw a blockbuster’s audience.

This question has already come to pass in Europe, where artists tend to move much more fluidly between traditional and devising processes. It’s just new work. Wider audiences seem trained to deal more easily with chaos, with blank spots, with formal experimentation. If devising moved to the mainstream it would hopefully also create space for individual playwrights breaking formal storytelling rules to be produced at major houses.

If devising moved to the mainstream the weirder artists would get more money. Audiences would get more comfortable with the weird. New audiences would come. They would be as comfortable with abstraction in live performance as they already are with abstraction in visual art. There would be performance for people who hate theatre. Sets would cost less or more…more likely less. Duct tape would be as valid a sewing material as thread. More resources would go to humans than design elements or buildings.

There would be more performance getting produced at mainstream theaters that creates a space for brains to do their work; to tie divergent strands together, to sift through layers of symbols, to determine their own experience. And I think this would be a healthy thing.


Rachel Chavkin is an Obie Award-winning director, educator, and the founding Artistic Director of the TEAM. With the TEAM Rachel has directed/co-authored Mission Drift, created in the blazing heat of a Las Vegas June and co-produced by New York’s P.S.122, Lisbon’s Culturgest, and London’s Almeida Theatre, with music composed by Heather Christian, Architecting (co-produced by the National Theatre of Scotland), Particularly in the Heartland, Give Up! Start Over! (In the darkest of times I look to Richard Nixon for hope), HOWL, based on the poem by Allen Ginsberg, and A Thousand Natural Shocks.

Outside of the TEAM: Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy and Dave Malloy’s Three Pianos (NYTW – Dec ’10/Jan ’11, Ontological Incubator Series – Feb/March ’10, 2010 Obie Award); Keith Reddin’s Acquainted with the Night and Steve Yockey’s Wonder (NYU Grad Acting); the Agee/Evans Project (working title) created with playwright Molly Rice and composer Stephanie Johnstone (Spring 2011, Montclair State U residency); Canary, a bluegrass musical by Molly Rice with music by Molly Rice and Ray Rizzo (Rattlestick DirtyWorks June, 2008); collaborations with playwright/performer/activist Taylor Mac including his extravaganza The Lily’s Revenge (Act II) (HERE Arts Center, 2010 Obie Award) and Peace, co-written by Mac and Chavkin (Workshop, HERE Arts Center, 2007). She has also directed All the Great Books (Abridged) by the Reduced Shakespeare Company (Hangar Theatre), Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (Classic Stage Company), and the NYC revival of Kurt Vonnegut’s Happy Birthday, Wanda June.

Selected Assistantships: Elevator Repair Service’s Sound and the Fury – assisting dir. John Collins (NYTW, Spring 2008), the Civilians on Anne Washburn’s The Ladies – assisting dir. Anne Kauffman, the SITI Company on Macbeth – assisting dir. Leon Ingulsrud, choreographer Pavel Zustiak on Le Petit Mort and Blind Spot, and Project 400 on Measure for Measure – assisting dir. Diane Paulus.

Rachel is an Artistic Associate at Classic Stage Company, for whom she has directed a number of readings/workshops and served as Mandy Patinkin’s Shakespeare Coach, an alum of the Drama League Directors Project, the Women’s Project Director’s Lab, and a New Georges Affiliate Artist. She teaches directing & performance at Playwrights Horizons Theater School within NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. B.F.A. NYU, M.F.A. Columbia.

  • Michael Yawney

    It is odd to claim that devised theater is somehow outside the mainstream, when commercially successful works like Chorus Line and Laramie Projects came out of such a process. There is devised work that is in the mainstream and devised work that is not. Just as one cannot say that all scripted work is mainstream, it is not really accurate to put all devised work into one particular box.

    I also do not think that one can say that devised work is inherently more non-hierarchical than scripted work. In devised work, there often is a forceful individual shaping the material acting as director and de facto playwright to a far greater extent than in a scripted work where these two functions are separated. It really does depend on the individual group creating the production.

    This is the problem with creating these big labels to tie together the work of individual artists. In the last decade, the term “devised” has gained currency in the U.S. and the types of work it includes often bears little relation to each other. In the past, a greater variety of terms were used to describe this work. So each project had a better chance to be seen in terms of its unique process rather than as part of a genre or movement.

    Is all company-created work “devised?” Why is a researched based script by an individual artist not “devised?” When an individual performer creates a work can it be called “devised?” These labels start pushing us into boxes as we make statements of what is expected from the genre. Back when there was no blanket term for devised work, there were fewer such works but a greater variety of types of performances assembled by groups. Now there are more such works but in becoming a defined category, the range is narrowing. I suppose this is a natural process, but I still think we have to be wary of making assumptions about the nature of any genre. When artists start putting things into categories, we have to be work more rigorously to see the unique features of each individual case.

  • Bmstroud1

    this article is ahead of its time.