Devised pieces of theatre have an abiding weakness. I’m going to illustrate this with an act of heresy.
Devised theatre means that the show is created largely or entirely by the cast, usually through a collective workshopping process. This was the approach taken by Theatre Workshop under the direction of Joan Littlewood to create Oh! What A Lovely War. The show is a series of sketches or vignettes about the First World War, interspersed with period songs. There’s comedy and pathos; some of the sketches have real bite. It is arguably the most famous piece of devised theatre – created in 1963 and still in frequent production. It seems heretical to criticise it. However, in my opinion, it is flawed.
One of the early sketches features a sort of Music Hall master of ceremonies – in one production, I saw this role played as a ringmaster. The figure cracks a couple of period jokes and starts talking about what is to come, apparently shaping the show. What I would expect from such an opening is that the strongly-established character will reappear later in the show to introduce new material or to take the show in a different direction, but it never happens: the character is put firmly in place, then dropped. The result is an abiding disjunction between the parts of the show. That’s the weakness of devised theatre: there’s no controlling mind.
I said as much to Joanne Denson, the leader of the YT2 youth theatre group. This was in the context of a discussion of their current project, a devised piece starting in the realms of folk stories and exploring a modern, darker equivalent. Joanne took the easy option – she agreed with me – and then followed-up by asking if I’d care to write a script from their devised work.
I should say that I’m not alone in taking the approach of becoming the controlling mind. Lazy Bee Scripts has published a number of scripts that have their origins in devised pieces, notably Helen Sharman with Death of an Angel and Floor 13 and, in a completely different approach (for a younger group), Sue Gordon with Dear Diary – A Presentation for Christmas.
I came to the YT2 show at the end of their series of improvisation workshops. That process had created a set of core characters (and a few less defined “friends”) and a coherent story, divided up into defined scenes (or phases of action, since it is intended to run continuously without changes of set). My role as writer in this case was principally to create consistent dialogue and to ensure the coherency of plot and consistency of character. (I also had to make sure that it was capable of running within the projected time constraints.)
The result is Sleeping With Beauty. It’s a piece about teenagers, so comes with disturbing themes amidst the bravado, comedy and vulgarity.