The Process of Devising New Plays
The new term is beginning at Kinsale Drama Course and soon more new devised plays will be emerging. The process we go through is set out below.
(These are guidelines not golden rules.)
Stage one: characterisation
First of all, I get actors to create a character. There is no one way into this. However, I am looking for the sort of character who will be so different than the actor playing them, that they will appear to be another person. When this happens the effect for the actor is similar to wearing a half-face mask. A sort of (non dangerous) possession occurs and the actor just knows what to do and say without thinking. For this reason, the type of characterisation I encourage is (in shorthand) outside/in characterisation. Change the actor from the outside and they will change inside as well. This is the nearest form of characterisation to mask work. Even so, there's no hard and fast rules. I suggest a way of working which normally helps, but I'm flexible and prepared to follow what seems to work on the day. Whilst it often happens that a character is instantly inhabited, some emerge and grow over hours/days/weeks, and nearly all change over the course of devising the play. So flexibility and patience are an important part of the process.
Initially though, I provide a range of costumes to the actors, including wigs and props. I ask them to change themselves physically as well. Facially, by pulling a face and freezing it, using a mirror. Then making noises through this frozen face, and speaking from the noise, so that the actor gets different speech patterns to that of normal voice. I ask the actors to let any feelings or physical intuitions to percolate down from the face and voice through the body and inform how the character might move. The character's walk might arrive in this way. New body language. Gestures. I try to get them to change themselves so that they would be almost unrecognisable to anybody who knew them. I ask the characters to walk about, and find a name for themselves. Perhaps discover who they are, what they do in life and where they live etc.
Stage two. Non-neutral space
I get the actors to pair up. They tell their partner who their character is and some of the few details they know about their character. They must then decide on a place to meet. It is normally disasterous for characters to meet in a neutral space. A park bench, a doctor's waiting room, a bus stop etc. It's not impossible to improvise and devise from such places, but people do not normally strike up and develop relationships from such places. In such places, people normally try and avoid things happening. So the actors must discuss who they are, what their character does and where they live, so they can decide on a place where both might conceivably meet. Of course the characters could be related or married. If we have a zoo keeper and a car salesman, perhaps the zoo keeper goes to buy a trailer to move a hippopotamus. The meeting of the two characters in a non-neutral space will suggest a starting point for the improvisation and the actors can then just see what happens.
Stage three. Something must happen.
I say to the actors that they should improvise until something happens. What does that mean? What is something happening? Two people on a date decide to eat a romantic meal and one tips wine all over the other. In a library, a person slips a book up their jumper and the librarian notices. Somebody finds a 100 euro note. Something happening is an incident, perhaps not an everyday incident, but something that could happen in the universe the characters inhabit. It might be something going wrong. It's something we'd like to watch. When something happens, we want to know what happens next. It's what makes us turn a page in a book we're reading. Something happening will make the audience feel incredibly curious about what is going to happen next. So much so, that they will feel disappointed if the actors don't go further and enact the next bit of the scenario. When this happens a dynamic has been created. The actors – or more precisely, their characters – are in a situation.
Don't underestimate the resistance people have to letting something happen. Despite the fact that this is all the audience craves. And that the audience will be delighted if they get it. I've noticed that writers in creative writing workshops are incredibly resistant to writing down something that happens. An event that we'd like to read about in a narrative. The reason War and Peace is so renowned is that it is full of stuff happening. Tolstoy wasn't afraid of it. Why would we want to read or see a narrative in which nothing happens? We might as well stare at a blank wall. So one of the things that can go amiss in devising through improvisation is the actors refusing to allow something to occur.
It's best to start the process of devising with just two characters. Every additional character multiplies the responses hugely. Three people in an improvisation means six possible responses are going on rather than just (in a scene with two people) two responses. Every additional character makes for many more responses to track honestly, to keep the narrative free of false responses.
Stage Four. The Situation.
Once a dynamic has revealed itself, I then get the characters to do exactly what they would do in that situation. I want the character who has spilt wine on their date to react exactly as they would in real life. Then I would like to them to react to the reaction. The key question is what happens next. Honestly. What would the characters really really do. The actors must not seek to control the outcome. They must not try to make the character do what they would like them to do. If the actors are properly inhabiting a character they will find this easy. Doing what the character would do naturally is simple if the character is inhabited. If not, its a nightmare. At every moment, you have to stop and ask, what would he or she do here? That is a very slow way to proceed. If the character is properly inhabited, you almost never have to ask. Stuff just happens naturally. The process is then incredibly quick, and it is not unusual to act through an entire play in a day. But without real inhabitation, the actors get stuck easily or try to think of ideas in repsonse to the question 'what would happen next?' They might also try to make the characters do things out of character, because they are worried about where the script is going. Sometimes, the end of a scene is reached. You have to ask then, where each character is at the end of the scene. What would they do next. That sometimes leads to a long (but essential) discussion with several actors and maybe any actors or students who are watching. It can take an hour or more sometimes to discover where the next scene would in all likelihood begin. Then we're off again. Improvise, and do what you would do next. Stop the action if there's any false notes. I'm looking for authenticity all the time. No cheap laughs. No searching for comedy – or anything else! Just, what is true and what is real in improvising what happens next.
Another challenge for the actors in this, as they vainly strive to control what is an uncontrollable situation, is thinking ahead. I want people not to have ideas, conceptual or otherwise, about what might happen in the next scene or the end. Jot these down by all means, but the important work is inching forward with what would really happen next. I can't stress enough how destructive 'ideas' can be to the process, and how poor they are as a means of constructing narratives. Yet never a play goes by without people having sudden lightbulb moments – hey I know what could happen in the end! Actually, I don't want to have to manipulate the story so that it fits a great end. The play will end itself when it is ready. Trust in that.
Promises to the audience.
One thing to be aware of in devising a narrative is cancelling out action that has already happened. I'm very reluctant to allow actors to cancel out a situation that they've previously set up. Audiences hate this. When you set up a situation, I call it a promise to the audience. You can't break that promise. You can rewrite the beginning if necessary to alter the promise or premise (they're not necessarily the same), but I'd sooner not have all the work. To give an example: a man works on his allotment and a younger man comes along and steals one of his cabbages. The reason given is that the thief believes the cabbages are magical. At this point, it is probably going to be very deflationary for the audience if we do not see the thief doing something with the cabbage that is magical, that ior at least behaving as if the cabbage is magical. The audience would want to see it. To continue the story with no further reference to the magicality of the cabbage would vastly disappoint the audience and cancel out a place that the character has suggested they would go. It's a broken promise. It is possible to cut out the bit about magical cabbages. But cutting backwards in this way is normally difficult. Better to let the characters do what they would do – explore the magicality of the cabbage! If this is not dealt with, the audience will be unconsciously or consciously disappointed. Sometimes a bit of elasticity is needed in devising around this issue. I want the characters to do what they would do. I also want the story to keep it's promises – if that can be done without ideas. I proceed with the actors, encouraging them to keep doing what their characters would do, all in response to the initial situation. I let it grow organically. It is like a oak growing from an acorn. Normally, the ending just arrives, unprompted. Of it's own accord. In fact, much of the process is like this. Things just happen. They can't be planned. So it feels unnervingly uncontrollable for all involved including me. When I'm working on a play, I'm playing it all by ear. Following a basic set of principles that any moment may have to be broken - because all characters and plays are different. It's a recipe in which the ingredients are always changing. So sometimes I intervene sometimes I don't. Sometimes my intervention works, other times my interventions fail. It's an inexact shambles of a methodology, and actors have to be prepared for feelings of dissatisfied raggedness. Of not knowing what is happening or where they are. Or where to go next. That is the nature of art. It's not maths where things are tied down exactly. Its the opposite. It's an interplay of intuition, guesswork, ingenuity, inspiration, common-sense, logic and illogicality. There's no real right or wrong. There's only, this works, this doesn't. It's great practice for developing theatre intuition. I'm looking for authenticity. Not realism necessarily. I want a play to be true to its own universe, which might be surreal or fanciful. Each play brings its own challenges to keep and break the very rules I am setting down. The therapist Tara Brach said in a podcast, that every time she works with a client it seems new and like she almost doesn't know what she's doing. This struck a chord with me, because very often I feel, as the play goes forward, I haven't a clue what I'm doing. Elasticity is my guiding principal. Flexibility. Stretching this and that to accommodate the actors needs and the needs of the narrative. In the devised play Bikeover, the situation/dynamic arrived in what turned out to be a scene from the middle of the play. We had to extrapolate a backstory from this one scene that arose from two characters. This is what I mean about each play being different and writing its own rules around the guiding principles.
Sometimes, rules have to be broken. In another play, Everybody Wants To Be a Cat, I felt the audience wouldn't want to see the very thing that the characters would probably do next, because it seemed obvious and theatrically weak. I needed something dramatic that the audience would be thrilled to see that did not cancel any promises and fitted with what we knew of the characters. In other words, I needed the very thing I had been resisting for months – an idea. Sometimes, to help the narrative flow, I might change a character. I don't do this lightly. Almost as a last resort. Because every little back-change has a massive knock-on effect through the story. But it is part of the elasticity that is sometimes needed to achieve a strong narrative. In Faindakipa, we changed the location and nationality of a principal character. It really helped. But it was a bit of a job repairing all the subsequent tears in the script. I'm also on the lookout for the obvious or the dull. I don't want either. A useful guide in a place where two or three things might happen in one situation, is what would the audience really want?
Throughout the entire process, I have cameras rolling to film what happens. Because otherwise the actors and myself will forget key parts of the action or dialogue. Once the play has reached an end, we transcribe the film footage. Rewrite the bits which are scrappy or lacking in theatricality. Then the actors can learn the lines and act it all out. A devised play needs less direction if played by the original cast (this is highly desirable), as they already understand much of the subtext.
To cook a character Sometimes an actor feels like their improvising isn't going anywhere. Often that is because their character isn't ready. It isn't actually different enough to their own character. The person who's playing the character needs to do more work on changing who they are. So when I see a character in this half finished state, I say the character is undercooked and I set about trying to help the actor finish the character they have created. I get a character to stand out on the stage and tell us a bit about themselves and I ask the rest of the group what they feel isn't finished about the character, and what would help to make the character feel more like a real person. And in this way we make a number of changes to the character. It might be that the actor needs to change the costume. Some actors throw on a load of silly clothes that don't fit together. This is unlikely to help them look like a real character. I won't be particularly happy to see an actor don a bowler hat, a tutu and a leopardskin waistcoat. It might lead to something amazing, but generally the best characters are the ones that look like they are a real character. I'm happy to see an eccentric character. They are real too and potentially rich in possibilities. Sherlock Holmes is a great eccentric character. Doyle's books would be a lot poorer without his oddness. In the case of Sherlock Holmes (sic) the eccentricity adds up. Characters must add up. The actor needs to wear a viable plausible costume that fits together. I don't mind if the character is ludicrous or eccentric, providing the costume makes sense within that eccentricity. I might work on the voice of the character. Make it higher, lower, sillier, graver, slower, faster or try an accent. The watching group and I gradually change more and more of the character until it feels like it is a plausible person, quite different from the actor who is inhabiting it. We might get a wig, or prop, change the actor's gestures or body language or all these things. It's important to have the character that convinces the audience. The reason for bothering with all of this is that a character that is properly inhabited/cooked will just know what to do within an improvisation. Without having to think, the actor beneath the character will, in an improvisation, do exactly what that character would do. This is extremely helpful for the devising actor. Without any conceptual thinking, the actor can live on instinct, pretty muuch as one does normally in real life. A properly cooked character will know what to do in virtually any situation.
Some people seem to have a natural ability to pretend to be someone else. Others learn this skill. But some people just don't seem to like creating a character. Perhaps they can't see the point because they're not interested in that sort of acting. They might be more interested in the sort of film acting (does it actually exist?) where they assume they won't have to change themselves - like Hugh Grant, I suppose. Perhaps for some they don't want to mess around with a human identity they feel safe with. In that case, who can blame them? Some people don't want to look ugly.
Making a plausible character is one challenge. Then the student has to hold it. Those people who don't like characterisation often find this hardest of all. They complain that they can't hold the character because the changing of the face or body is hurting their muscles. I tell them they can hold the shape and soften the muscles and then it won't hurt. It sometimes helps. Some are frightened of failing – no matter how safe you make the space. In these cases, an actor will sometimes plainly not even try to change. It sometimes helps such people to think of characterisation as a disguise.
Having said all of this, it is sometimes possible to create narratives without characterisation, if the actors have sufficient belief in what is happening in the narrative. Belief, ie believing that what is happening onstage is real(ish), is essential to get the narrative flowing. Without it, we are back to stopping every five seconds. Belief is needed in all forms of acting. One might say, don't go onstage without it. If it's a problem, make sure you give yourself time to believe in what is happening in the scene. Don't rush things. One helpful quality of a properly inhabited character is that they have a natural and complete belief in the narrative. So for those who do want to cook a character the rewards are great. I'd reference Charlie Chaplin's description of how he created the Tramp. This is quoted at length in Keith Johnson's book Impro. Also in the same section of that book, Johnstone gives the example of Stanislavski's critic, a similar type of character, one so different from the actor that the actor doesn't have to think about what the character is going to say or do. They just ARE. This form of characterisation is strong and overwhelming as an experience. It makes for great narratives and great theatre.
What to do when you are stuck.
First of all, don't give up. Maybe take a rest and give the unconscious some time to work, but don't be critical of yourself or blame others that you are working with. Check the process has been followed. That all the characters are defined enough. Are they properly cooked? Go back over what you've done and see if you have followed the process closely. Remember that having any material is better than having nothing. If you have some material, however ragged, you have something that can be amended changed or embellished. If you have nothing, you have nothing. Have you done what a character really would have done at a key moment? Or did you have them do what you wanted them to do? Are there other things the characters might plausibly have done in responding to their situation that might work better?
Beware the judge hectoring the actor at this point. The judge cannot bear something which is open ended and seemingly chaotic. The judge wants a black and white situation where it is clear and obvious whether the actor has 'failed' or 'succeeded.' Improvisation and devising by improvisation does not lend itself to judgement in this way. It is a messy, chaotic business. Every narrative and improvisation throws up fresh challenges and challenges that have not been met before. This is the most educational and productive thing about the process. It is advanced problem-solving. Useful in every walk of life. Learning what to do when you don't know what to do is wonderfully liberating. To be able to live with chaos and gradually sift through it and sort it out is a life skill. Not much of worth in life is black and white. So learn to live with the insecurities that the process brings: the challenge of needing to be elastic and patient to get results. By elasticity I mean actors must not get too obsessed with one idea and must be prepared to let things go and to consider that if things are not working out immediately their work is not necessarily a failure. Things not working out is an essential part of a working out how to fix things that don't seem to be working out. So by elasticity I mean, can the actor try different things when they are stuck? A lot of the learning in this sort of situation comes from finding a problem (help, I don't know what to do or say here!) and trying to find a way round the problem with the tools at hand. Or maybe even tools you fashion yourself. Then seeing what happens. Being critical of oneself or one's fellow actors will get you nowhere in this situation. So if you don't know what to do and seem stuck, gag the parrot (the judge) and then be as elastic as you can. Try out lots of different things. Check you have been following the process closely. A judge in the room when you're trying to be creative is a one-way street to failure. Any kind of negativity is a positive hindrance to the process.