Some thoughts on collaboration and group-devised performance

Due to my new sessional lecturing gig at the University of Western Sydney, I've had to dig through a lot of my writing archives to find material for lectures, and much to my surprise, some of my older writings are actually quite interesting. At least to me. This passage is an excerpt from my Honours thesis, submitted in 2000, and while I probably wouldn't write in this way today, I'm quite taken by the perspective of my younger self. Perhaps its simply nostalgia. You be the judge. This section is a prelude to a description of the workshop stage of version 1.0's The second Last Supper (2000-2001), and as such is an interesting record of the early stages of us working out what the hell it was that we were doing, and our possible place(s) in the world of performance. Enjoy.

A model of a devising process

"'Collective creation’ is not some miracle process which erases all difficulties. On the contrary, it invariably brings them together every time that an actor enters; and on each occasion, everything has to be revised and reinvented." (Caubere 1999:75)

All performance work made by a collaborative group is made through a devising process. The group constantly makes strategic and tactical decisions about what material is needed in the construction of the piece and why. From my experience of this process in a number of collaborative groups, I have formulated a seven-step model of a devising process. In practice one is not necessarily conscious of this process, and may not represent the internal workings of the project in this manner. The ‘steps’ do not occur as discrete identifiable objects in themselves and the boundaries between steps are permeable. They bleed into one another. These steps are designed to illustrate the shape of a collaborative process.

It is important to note that this model is not designed as a teaching aid or a list of ‘how to devise performance’. For models designed to illustrate a devising process with an educational focus refer to such publications as Tarlington & Michaels 1995 and Bray 1991, and also to the later chapters of Oddey 1997.

Step 1: Initial concept/frame
Every project starts somewhere, but the actual stating point for each project is never identical. This initial concept may be an image, a piece of text or music from any number of sources, or a theoretical concern. The starting point might be as simple as a working title, a phrase or single word with a cluster of implicit meanings and connotations. Or any combination of the above. The starting point of version 1.0's first three pieces (The Dream Index, Where the garment gapes..., and Preludes and Fugues) was a title that was conceived by myself and approved by the group. This title provided a frame on which a series of ideas and images could be hung. For another group the starting point would be different, dependent on the combination of personalities within that specific group. Whatever the initial concept, it is highly likely that the initial concerns of the project will shift through the process and the resultant performance will contain no trace of the initial notion around which it was made.

Step 2: Group discussion
“At some point in the creative, collaborative process, you do arrive at a group certainty. That is not to say that are all necessarily driving towards exactly the same objective, but there is a line of agreement.” (Long as cited in Oddey 1997:43)

The next stage of this process is that the group reaches some form of loose, flexible consensus or shared agreement about the project concept through extended discussion. Agreement is reached upon at least some of the primary concerns of the piece, and initial strategies to facilitate the generation of material are decided. A collective understanding of the project is established, leaving space for individual’s specific concerns, knowledges and interests. The group discovers a common ground, from which they can begin to make performance.

Whatever position is reached through initial discussions is likely to change repeatedly throughout the process, following the evolution of the performance material. Also this process of discussion is not contained tidily to the beginning of a process but occurs repeatedly as new positions are clarified, new possibilities identified, and old material re-interrogated.

During this initial discussion process shared or individual exercises may be set to start generating performance material, and specific group reading material may also be set. Specific avenues of research may be suggested, and members may set themselves individual tasks based on their expertise or interest. For example a group member who skills base lies in classical singing may investigate appropriate musical material for the project. A group member skilled in writing may set themselves a number of writing tasks, and so on.

Some fundamental questions that are likely to be raised during this part of the process are:
What are we doing?
Why are we doing it?
Where are we doing it?
What are we talking about?
How can we talk about it?
Why is it important for us to talk about it?
What does it mean for us, in the here and now, to be talking about it?
What performance strategies can we use to represent it in a manner satisfying to the group and stimulating to a potential audience?
What do we want to achieve by undertaking this project?

Step 3: Personal reflection/research by individual group members
The members of the group work individually and reflect upon the concept under investigation. Interesting and relevant documents are identified and followed up. Members develop material in response to initial discussions and in some cases make responses to exercises and/or provocations set during initial meetings. Any specific group reading material that may have been set is undertaken.

Members return to the group with images, texts, staging concepts, props, theoretical concepts, music, etc. This new material is fed into group discussion and from the process of showing this material potential new material is suggested or made possible. This individual research is ongoing, and continually throughout the process group members will present new ideas and material that arises outside of the rehearsal room. Of course, this notion of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ becomes problematic here, due to the fact that while within a devising process all of one’s life becomes about the work.

Step 4: Improvisation/ play on the floor of the rehearsal room
Improvisation and play are the primary tools of a devised process. It is through free and structured improvisation that material is developed, ideas and personas tested, and solutions to problems found. Improvisation and discussion often go hand in hand, with one feeding into the other, suggesting strategies by which to proceed.

The evolution of material occurs tangentially, not necessarily in a linear fashion. One thing certainly does lead to another, but not in a logical cause-and-effect way. The impulse for an abrupt change in pace/direction/focus may come from a look, or a position of a performer’s body in relation to another’s. This ‘trigger’ need not even be understood by the other member or members of the group that follow the impulse. Tim Etchells’ gives a list of some examples of such episodes in the work processes of Forced Entertainment, suggesting a notion of collaboration that is fundamentally based around mis-understanding, of taking up and following an action from another group member and creating something fantastic, only to discover afterwards that they were doing something totally different:

"Collaboration then not as a kind of a perfect understanding of the other bloke, but a mis-seeing, a mis-hearing, a deliberate lack of unity. And this fact of the collaborative process finding its echo in the work since on-stage what we see is not all one thing either- but rather a collision of fragments that don’t quite belong, fragments that mis-see an mis-hear each other." (Etchells 1999:56)

Step 5: Shaping
A process of shaping, editing and assembling the material generated through improvisation now occurs. Structures and frames are developed, and material is reworked and re-shaped until it is able to ‘make sense’ in terms of the emerging internal logic of the piece. As new material is developed and fed into these newly established structures, the structures and frames are re-interrogated to ensure that they continue to serve the interests of the work, and those of the group.

There is also a need to fit the material to the mechanical necessities of the production, which may mean altering sections slightly to facilitate the movement of performers within the space, adding necessary technology or staging elements such as microphones, and many other possible permutations.

It is here that a process of ‘reverse dramaturgy’ is utilised. This process may involve the creation of filler pieces or transitions that make ‘sense’ of (or at least follow a consistent internal logic) often arbitrarily derived material after it has been assembled, to ultimately create a coherent collage. Such a process of reverse dramaturgy is often as much concerned with the act of performance itself as it is with a performative ‘narrative’.

Step 6: Feedback from ‘outside eyes’
Essentially an ‘outside eye’ is someone who grants a fresh perspective on the performance work generated in the rehearsal room. This person (or persons) may have a designated role within the work, such as a dramaturge, or may be a friend or colleague invited into a rehearsal at a particular stage for this purpose. This provides a critical eye that is not immersed within the process, and is able to look from an audience’s point of view. The outside eyes may be able to identify structural problems or elements that don’t make sense in terms of the whole performance, but have been taken for granted or simply forgotten by the performers, elements that have become invisible or ‘natural’ in the process. They may also propose suggestions for solutions to stumbling blocks or dead ends reached by the group in rehearsal, or a second opinion that resolves an unresolvable argument or difference of opinion within the group regarding a particular performance element.

An outside eye is an important function, no matter how self-reflexive a group may be. Often it is only from outside the group, with no personal investment in the work, that the performance can be seen clearly. Of course the group must choose what feedback is useful or constructive and what feedback is ignored, based on the tastes, beliefs, needs and experiences of both the group and the outside eye(s). The outside eye is a tool that is used to benefit the performance process. How that tool is used in practice is entirely at the discretion of the group in question.

Step 7: Performance
The process of developing and shaping the performance doesn’t come to a halt when the performance reaches opening night, but continues to develop as new ideas and structures emerge through contact with an audience. Elements that don’t work are edited out of the performance. Accidents that propel the work in an unexpected but inspiring direction become incorporated into the piece. New elements suggest themselves to the group during the performance season, and are tested out. If they work, they may become part of the performance. In this way the performance never becomes a finished product, but always remains in process. Because the performers themselves have control and responsibility for their own actions, they have the licence to explore new possibilities within their own performance, and do so. Therefore the work continues to evolve as each of the participants increase their depth of knowledge as to the manner in which the performance operates. This evolution only occurs through repeated encounters with audiences in a performance situation. The work is never complete until the performance season is complete.

Images: Danielle Antaki, Rohan Thatcher, Stephen Klinder, and Yana Taylor in version 1.0's The second Last Supper. Images by Heidrun Lohr.


Chris T said…
David, Thanks for sharing that with us. Very interesting to gain this insight into how you and Version 1.0 work.
David Williams said…
Thanks Chris. I'll clean it up a bit and add the bibliography hopefully later today. Nice to know that someone's reading the blog despite my lack of posting!

Nick Mawson said…
Hi David,
I was just directed to your blog by my honours supervisor. I'm currently in the processes of completing my honours and it was interesting to read your thoughts when you were undergoing that. Some really interesting thoughts that seem to mesh with my thoughts for devising theatre for young audiences.
Was just wondering what the title of your thesis was/is? And was there a performative element?
David Williams said…
Hi Nick,

My Honours thesis was entitled 'New adventures in dark places: An investigation of an ongoing collaborative performance practice'(UWS Nepean, 2000), and it was entirely by thesis with no practical assessment component. Its a long thesis (over 25,000 words), and the early chapters discuss ways of accounting for the multiple authorship that collaboration entails (effectively an examination of theatre semiotics with a bit of dance theory later on), followed by a several case studies, and then 'emergent theories', from which this section is drawn. I hope that helps.

emily parrr said…
And this fact of the collaborative process finding its echo in the work since on-stage what we see is not all one thing either- but rather a collision of fragments that don’t,argumentative essay ideas

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