Devising – is there a glass ceiling?

Convener(s): Chris Goode

Participants: Venla Hatakka, Matt Trueman, Amelia Bird, Hugh Chapman, Loren O’Dair, Lee Simpson, Mandy Fenton, Isabel Carr, Persephone Bayley, Jason H, Stella Duffy, Angela Clerkin, Greg McLaren, Ed Jaspers, 45 seconds of Tassos Stevens; several others to whom I apologise for not harvesting (or knowing) their name…

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

An opening rant:

Seeing Lepage’s feeble epic Lipsynch and thinking “I work all the time with people who could do this better”: but is working through devising possible in this country on that scale – both in terms of physical bigness & resourcing, but also in terms of ambition and scope? And if that kind of work isn’t possible, why not? Is there a lack of will on behalf of venues, producers etc., especially given that upscale work would perhaps tend to require the involvement of more mainstream institutions? Is the inbuilt need for more time, more investment and (arguably) more faith always going to work against devising? Or is there something about devising as a methodology or as a working culture in itself that constrains its scale and its plausible aspirations? Do we assume too quickly that we can’t work big? Do we not even want it? (I do; but maybe I’m a freak or a sell-out or…?)


The ensuing conversation (unsorted & untidy but as best I can):

It’s only when devising companies take on classic texts that they start to be seen as legitimate. (Or, devising from well-known films etc, those sources can stand in for a classic text…)

Is it that there’s an inadequate language for talking about devising? Among critics? In relation to marketing? In making process transparent and engaging for audiences?

Is there, in fact, any gain in asking an audience to share in the liveness and inclusiveness of devised work? Do audiences care how work is made? Possibly not; but they might recognize an aesthetic or procedural difference, a different feel, to devised work, which can be very appealing – they sense the ensemble connection, the privileging of theatricality above all. The ability of devising to create the right form for whatever it wants to make makes it less hidebound and this is attractive to audiences. (Though a lot of devised work clings unnecessarily to literary forms.) 

Is there something intrinsically ‘human scale’ about devising? Asking it to get bigger may be inimical to its virtues of intimacy and accessibility.

Is it that in fact the concerns out of which work is devised are not smaller than the issues of conventional drama, but bigger? That devising can more easily engage with the biggest philosophical questions, and finds human-size ways of illustrating that engagement.

An example of using Open Space to make sure that the personal issues feeding into a devising process are all aired and included.

There’s something almost existential about this whole question of the glass ceiling – of struggling as an artist even just to leave a scratch on the ceiling…

The importance of long process, including downtime, and of having some kind of outside eye perspective, in pushing through unperceived limitations of process and scope.

Is this a specifically British problem? Isn’t the glass ceiling at least quite a bit higher everywhere else in the world? Improbable’s experience of being treated more like authors in other places; whereas here it’s “not really proper theatre”. Devisers going in to the RSC / NT / Royal Court can feel like they’re being looked at as if they’re going to nick the desks…

The unhelpful focus of media (and others?) on one big-name individual within the company – replicating the literary model of the individual genius.

International devised work presented through BITE etc seems much more acceptable: perhaps because it’s seen not as devised but as international, and has a certain cachet accordingly.

Is there scope for a kind of umbrella organization like the RSC but focusing on devised work?

There is a perception among playwrights (and others) that the play is under attack or even under threat. Both camps – the writer-led and the devised – feel hard done by. Meanwhile some writers want to engage more with the process and the rehearsal room but have too little power within conventional structures and are excluded accordingly. Writers, especially younger writers, are increasingly influenced by devising and by devised work. And of course there are writers, and a lot of writing, within devising too, so setting this question up as against writing is off the mark.

There may be a glass ceiling on devising but the room is bigger! The walls are much further apart…

Big isn’t necessarily big. ‘August: Osage County’ was touted as big but was in fact pretty small in scope and parochial in feel.

Devisers are evaluated differently. A play that doesn’t work is a bad play; if a devised piece doesn’t work, it’s the whole of the methodology that’s considered to be at fault. Also, perceptions of track record are different: comparing a consistently good deviser with a patchy writer, the writer still is perceived as representing a lower risk.

Do we as devisers lock ourselves into the mental and emotional habit of being on the fringe(s)?

Might it perhaps be important that we (continue to) do both: wanting, and valuing, our marginality, but also sticking our heads above the parapet at times? We can hold both these positions.

How much is the glass ceiling to do with documentation? Is the supremacy of the play because the play text survives? How could devised work be better documented without sacrificing its resistance to commodification? We could do better at documenting our work just for the improvement of our own knowledge sharing – cf. the video archive at the Live Art Development Agency.

Another issue with outcomes: a broader (political) culture of metrics and measurability, which doesn’t feel compatible with devising. But there’s now a backlash against this culture, so that might feed through.

Do we just have to wait for the younger generation who are comfortable with all modes to occupy the positions of power & influence in the bigger mainstream spaces? Or perhaps waiting won’t work if the deeper structures don’t change too. And it’s no good just waiting anyway, we have to keep agitating.

There’s been a huge increase in the teaching of devising, but is this a good thing? How do you teach devising anyway? – Certain companies (e.g. Forced Entertainment) becomes paradigms; academic writing on devising companies may bear no relation to their own sense of what they do. Unhelpful and misleading orthodoxies start to form.

To overdramatise: devisers are oppressed; the literary theatre establishment are powerful. But (as with many other situations) it’s the powerful who feel vulnerable and attacked. As devisers we need to help those with the power feel less fearful of us: otherwise a polarization continues and is reinforced – and the devising/playwriting binary is anyway false, practically there’s an obvious continuum.

There are successful devising companies doing big work in mainstream places. They may be few in number but they indicate that the amount of deliberate resistance to devising is not as overwhelming as it may feel. (However, note how long it took many of those companies even to get as far as midscale touring…) 

A little scrap from a subsequent conversation:

Something that didn’t come up in our discussion but which feels pertinent is the idea of commitment to devising as a methodology for ethical/political reasons – the minimization of hierarchy, over-separation of roles… So it’s not just about aesthetics, it’s about how we want to work as artists and how we make the case for it. 

Ad hoc conclusion:

Yes there is a glass ceiling. No we don’t really know what to do about it. Not everybody sees it as a problem. All of the ‘both/and’ stuff feels positive: making more of the continuum than of the polar opposites; both occupying (and enjoying) the margins / upstream, and getting stuck in at the mainstream... Thanks to everyone for talking J