UP CLOSE | Devising theater around challenges

Cabaret

Acting student Jackson Moran DRA ’13 came to Yale’s School of Drama from “a more traditional background.” Once cast in a play, he expected to know his character from day one, learn lines from a script and follow a director’s lead. He thought that was how it always worked.

“I was taught there was a hierarchy in the rehearsal room,” Moran said. “I knew experimental theater was out there, but I didn’t think that was where I wanted to go.”

But this past fall, Moran began working on a play that he and his collaborators staged in February at the Yale Cabaret as “All This Noise,” inspired by his family’s experiences with mental health treatment. Moran said he spent weeks driving around New England in search of source material, collecting stories from patients, physicians and other families facing similar situations as his own. Moran called “All This Noise” an example of “devised theater.” Andy Horowitz, founder and editor of contemporary performing arts blog “Culturebot,” explained that “ensemble,” “devised,” “collaborative” and “collective” have become interchangeable terms for any work not written by a single playwright. The term “devised” encompasses shows created through a wide variety of methods, from interview-based projects to shows developed through movement and dance.

“[Working on ‘All This Noise’] would be exhausting [and] energizing,” Moran said. “Some nights, I would feel, ‘This is a disaster, we are nowhere,’ and didn’t want people to see it. Other times, it was exhilarating. It’s scary, whereas if you have an Arthur Miller play, you always have that script to return to.”

Moran said he now looks at theater differently. He still loves language plays, such as those of Shakespeare, but he feels a “more expanded sense of where to go from here” — and a greater chance of reconciling his dream of pursuing theater with his desire to stay involved in politics and create meaningful work. And he is not alone: 14 current and former Yale College and School of Drama students interviewed said they hope to go into ensemble-based work.

But creating devised theater often means working outside of the established system, leading to extra risks not all artists can afford to take.

 

CREATING IN A COMMUNITY 

When applying to the School of Drama, students choose one of nine specialties. Acting, directing, design and playwriting all operate as distinct departments, with separate courses of study and corresponding required roles in curricular productions. Students gain further experience working at the Yale Repertory Theatre, a professional regional theater. The Drama School’s website describes its relationship with the Rep as “analogous to that of a medical school and a teaching hospital.”

This model contrasts sharply with the education Charlotte Brathwaite DRA ’11 received at the Amsterdam School for the Arts in the Netherlands prior to enrolling at the School of Drama. At the Amsterdam school, Brathwaite’s training was focused on work generated by performers, which often relied more on physical movement than language, she explained.

Brathwaite, who has worked largely on experimental theater since graduating, added that in the Netherlands, students are not strictly categorized according to discipline — they are all considered “performers and theater-makers” rather than directors or lighting technicians. Students also retain complete control over their time beyond class, allowing them to pursue their own self-directed productions more easily than students can at Yale, she explained.

“It was a very different use of your time and use of your creative energy,” Brathwaite said.

Sara Holdren ’08 DRA ’15 said “the sheer time crunch” partly explains why fewer School of Drama students pursue devised work: With every moment scheduled between class and required productions, extracurricular shows at the Cabaret often do not rehearse until after 11 p.m.

“On the whole, [the School of Drama] is very conservative in its approach,” said Thomas Sellar, professor of dramaturgy and dramatic criticism at the school and editor of the scholarly THEATER magazine. “We really train to make drama that begins with a text, [with the] playwright at the center of the process.”

Sellar said that while the Drama School recognizes this is not the only way to make theater, it provides students with rigorous training that lays a foundation for whatever students may decide to pursue. Still, Sellar said he feels that there is a discrepancy between the amount of devised work he features in THEATER magazine and thinks about as a scholar of contemporary theater, and the kind of traditional, text-driven shows created around him at the School of Drama.

Michael McQuilken DRA ’11 said that while he has always hoped to focus on creating new. collaborative work, the intensity of the training he received as a directing student at the school, as well as experience managing both people and money, has helped him after graduation. The only skill he has not yet used is “script interpretation.”

But for some students, including Monique Barbee DRA ’13, the School of Drama has also served as an introduction to devised theater. All acting, directing, dramaturgy and playwriting students complete “Drama 50s” projects in their first semester in which students are thrown together into groups and told to create a work of theater from the ground up, with only a general theme for guidance. Sellar said he views these projects as a way to introduce students to the concept of collaboration before they break off into their respective disciplines.

“Now I approach each piece like it’s a devised piece … even with classic texts,” Barbee said.

Gabriel Levey DRA ’14 said the school’s Acting Department consistently requires students to exercise the type of creative ownership necessary for devised work. For instance, each third-year actor takes on a project in which he or she attempts to transform into another person whom he or she interviews, without the guidance of a director.

Still, Holdren said that for actors, simply getting to the School of Drama means working through a conventional theater model that requires endlessly preparing monologues, and attending auditions and callbacks. Breaking out of a process that defines one so clearly as an “actor” can be difficult, she said.

“We introduce ourselves by discipline. I say, ‘Hi, I’m Sarah, [and] I’m a first-year director,’” Holdren said. “You feel like you’re surrounded by a lot of people who are really driven, very focused on [their] individual [careers].”

Holdren added that she aims to balance her curricular specialty, directing, and her diverse background working on many different aspects of productions — a working method she became accustomed to through the undergraduate “Control Group,” in which no one stuck to strictly defined roles. She said she partially chose to attend drama school to meet other students interested in working through a collaborative model, adding that she is slowly meeting like-minded peers.

Levey explained that the sense of community created through professional school, where students work within a consistent artistic environment for several years, makes the pursuit of ensemble-based work particularly attractive to graduating drama students.

Tea Alagic DRA ’07 said she finds the professional world isolating relative to drama school, because going from show to show means working with a different team each time.

“I was there for three years, and you start to know everybody,” Alagic said. “You create your own community. When you start doing it professionally … you don’t always work with the same designers.”

Holdren noted that the school is diverse in terms of students’ career aspirations, with many of her classmates aiming to work in regional theater as well.

Michael Bateman, who worked on the devised “Dilemma!” that went up at the Cabaret earlier this year, said that while the experience had been “tremendous fun,” he does not see devised work as a high priority in terms of his professional aspirations. Bateman said he is looking to enter the theater development field, hoping to eventually serve as the executive director of a theater years down the line.

“I think that’s great — all of those paths are challenging, legitimate and interesting,” Holdren said. “But I don’t want to be a job director, who flies in for three weeks to do a show and flies out. I want a home base.”

 

ASKING FOR WORK

At the end of his final year at the School of Drama, Brett Dalton DRA ’11 participated in a showcase where industry professionals came to see him and his fellow acting graduates to decide whom they might be interested in representing.

Once he signed with an agent, Dalton said the realities of the professional world caused him to adjust his expectations: He spent nearly a year auditioning — at least once and as many as three times a day — before booking his first acting job on a television show. Dalton said he had never planned on doing film rather than theater, but is excited to be working again. He added that it is nearly impossible for an actor to make a living doing only staged work. Moreover, having a daughter after graduation caused him to change his outlook on acting.

“It doesn’t mean all of the things it used to mean to me,” Dalton said. “It really puts your priorities in the right order [and] makes you see that it’s a job — it’s a fun job, but it’s a job.”

As she completes her final year in the School of Drama’s acting program, Barbee said she is confronting the fact that commercially viable and artistically fulfilling work often feel mutually exclusive.

Levey noted that whatever a theater artist chooses to do in the professional world, getting a job comes down to the same thing: asking for work. He has tried to break out of this model, spending two years self-producing devised work in New York prior to coming to the Drama School.

“[Creating your own work is] a way to stay sane because in theater there are no guarantees — no foundation, no job security,” Levey said. “How do you keep fueling that [passion] if no one is giving you an opportunity to act?”

Levey added that trying to make a living through self-produced theater is “nuts” in the long term. Despite securing two artistic residencies, he said he did not make a livable income from the shows he worked on in New York, especially after paying for the performance space and other artists involved.

Alagic led her own ensemble company that focused on purely devised work when she was in her early 20s, but now works largely as a director of “premade” shows. She said while devised theater has always been her passion, she is not thinking about self-producing again at the moment.

“I just think that I’m personally not made for raising money,” Alagic said.

Horowitz said the funding pool for theater artists seeking to work outside of established theater remains small, as money is largely funneled into institutions that can better create the impression of stability and fiscal accountability for donors. He added that artists often find themselves working another job to make a living, while self-producing on the side.

“It’s a conundrum, because at what point do you become a professional artist?” Horowitz said. “You’re a professional if you get paid to have a full-time job as artistic director of a professional theater, but if you have another job…  in our society you’re just an amateur.”

Rachel Alderman, a member of the all-volunteer, New Haven-based ensemble company “A Broken Umbrella Theatre,” said the group is made up of artists who work at professional stages, including the Long Wharf Theatre and the Yale Repertory Theatre, but still choose to devote their free time to shows with “Umbrella.” Alderman said the company puts all the money it receives toward the shows themselves, but it does what it can to help the artists, such as providing food or child care at rehearsals.

“It’s definitely a second job,” Alderman said. “I would say a lot of people put in up to 30 hours a week or more.”

Alderman said that even with grant and donation money, “Umbrella” would not be financially sustainable without free labor and expertise. She said she enjoys the sense of creative ownership provided by working in the ensemble. Still, she thinks most members of “Umbrella” are proud to be making a living in the traditional theater realm.

“For a lot of us, it’s what we set out to do when we were little,” Alderman said. “Every professional experience I’ve had has taught me a tremendous amount. … Theater is what everyone loves, [and] many just feel lucky to be able to work in it on a regular basis.”

Sellar explained that when public funding for the arts in the United States began to decrease in the 1980s and early ’90s, theaters were forced to change their production model to become increasingly reliant on box office sales, corporate donations, gifts and subscriptions.

“That changes what you can do,” Sellar said. “It’s harder to experiment with new collaborative theater-making. These are big budgets — there’s a lot of risk involved in ensemble-created projects.”

With the devised piece “Dilemma!” Bateman said the team did not have enough time to flesh the show out into all he had initially envisioned. Levey said he understands that the opportunities being at Yale provides through a free performance space at the Cabaret are a luxury. Moran, who spent time working as a professional actor in New York before coming to the school, said he relishes the freedom of creation he has had at the Cabaret.

“[Working in New York was] at the service of somebody else,” Moran said. “Here I’m still trying to do good work, but not trying to please people all the time. It’s more working for yourself, for your own sense of purpose.”

 

A NEW KIND OF LANGUAGE 

Sellar said many regional theaters were founded partly to get away from the commercialism of shows on Broadway and to stage plays with more local significance. But while some still do, he said many have moved away from their original purpose, staging local productions of shows that have already opened in London and New York instead.

When Levey was working in New York, he said he became increasingly aware of how much devised work in the city was not actually developed there. With the high costs of living and finding space in large cities, many ensembles create their work in smaller communities.

Jen Wineman DRA ’10, who has spent time devising site-specific works with a company based in Telluride, Colo., said the small-town community, which does not have many other theater options, tended to be open to experimentation.

Some local ensembles prioritize serving the needs of what they feel to be otherwise artistically overlooked communities.

Rachel Alderman and her husband Ian, the artistic director of “Umbrella,” said the artists in the ensemble are driven by their desire to reach communities that may not connect with or be able to afford more conventional theater outlets.

“One of the reasons we’ve been able to have all these artists continue to volunteer their time and energy and skills and talent is because they believe in what ‘A Broken Umbrella’ is trying to do for the community of New Haven as a professional group of volunteer artists,” Ian Alderman said.

The New Haven-based ensemble “Collective Consciousness Theatre,” which is staffed by professional actors and artists, tours schools as well as theaters, said Dexter Singleton, the group’s artistic director. The ensemble’s most highly acclaimed show, “Stories of a New America,” was created from more than 80 interviews with refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan who live in the New Haven area.

“Theater is so powerful: It’s immediate [and] it reflects real life … so people can see a reflection of what they’re like, to see what our faults are and strengths are, what we need to have solutions for,” Singleton said. “It’s something so much more powerful and different than what you get on film or from reading.”

Mary Laws DRA ’14 worked on the show “This” at the Cabaret last year, which used interviews from the Yale and New Haven communities as source material. She said it was thrilling to create a piece of theater where each night at least a few audience members’ stories ended up onstage.

In the future, Laws said she wants to pursue more projects along the lines of “This,” explaining that the experience opened her up to possibilities for theater she had not considered before — as something with the power to heal and teach, as well as entertain audiences.

Sellar said he does not see anything new in the desire to work with an ensemble, an idea that extends as far back as Ancient Greece.

“What’s new is the way dramatic fiction is being discarded [and] the interest in real documentary sources, buildings, sites [and] communities as sources for performance-making,” Sellar said.

“Collective Consciousness” attempts to make its shows accessible to lower-income groups by bringing theater directly into neighborhood schools and churches, and by offering a range of ticket prices, anywhere from $10–40.

Singleton explained that tickets at stages like Long Wharf Theatre are not affordable for everyone in the New Haven community.

“That’s why I do it, to touch that audience that would never be touched in a large theater on Broadway,” Singleton said. “If a person can’t afford to go, we don’t turn them away. We generally find some way to get them in.”

Singleton himself has performed at stages including the Long Wharf, but he said these experiences did not lead to the same kind of interactions or connections with audience members as he has experienced after shows with “Collective Consciousness.”

“Umbrella”’s shows are typically inspired by places around New Haven and the way they reflect the city’s history. Their most recent show was inspired by — and transformed the physical space of — the New Haven Public Library. Alderman said the artists in “Umbrella” are motivated not only by the chance to pursue their artistic passions, but also by the ways they are able to serve the New Haven community through portraying the city’s forgotten or overlooked spots in a new way.

Sellar said theater institutions have been grappling with how they attract a primarily “aging” audience since their inception. McQuilken said one of his goals is to create new work that will excite younger audiences.

“The stigma is that theater is old and boring to a lot of young people: Things like movies, television [and] live music are all more typical ways for young people to spend their money,” McQuilken said. “But there’s a beautiful communion between audience and creator when you go see theater, something that kind of surrounds you.”

Before coming to the School of Drama, Cole Lewis DRA ’14 spent 10 years with a devised theater company in Canada that created site-specific shows in places like bars, buses and storefronts. She said finding performance spaces where audience members can behave more naturally than they might in a theater is important to her.

“How can you make an audience behave as though they’re going to see a band they like?” Lewis said. “I think that’s where you see real audiences. I like audiences who cough, who unwrap candy, who drink. I hate polite audiences.”

Lewis said the audiences she encountered at these shows, which were often pay-as-you-can, ranged from university professors to factory workers. She called these “the smartest audiences around,” explaining that casual viewers who did not spend a great deal of money on tickets feel freer to criticize the work.

“A kind of language comes out of devising, a malleable sense of play with rhythms so entirely different than what you can get from a script,” Lewis said. “It can speak specifically to a community, can speak in that community’s voice.”

 

‘A STRUGGLE HERE AND A STRUGGLE THERE’

For decades, some American artists looked across the ocean to Europe or north to Canada, where extensive state funding long helped make theater production less of a commercial enterprise. Sellar said European countries have historically supported more theater festivals and events that bring devised work before a wide audience.

“The European experimental scene is … not in some off-Broadway, falling-apart theater, [but in the] mainstages in their big houses,” Alagic said.

In Canada, public arts funding takes pressure off box offices to generate enough subscription revenue to sustain theaters and companies, which in turn lowers ticket prices, said Aaron Craven, artistic producer of the Vancouver-based Mitch and Murray Productions. Craven added that government boards in charge of allocating funding look more favorably upon shows that promise to offer pay-as-you-can options or to tour schools.

After the recent economic crisis, though, public arts funding in countries across Europe has been one of the first areas to receive drastic cuts. Between 2012 and 2013, the Netherlands reduced its federal arts budget by 22 percent.

“I think [public funding] is slowly dwindling away,” Brathwaite said. “[European countries’] systems are starting to look more and more like [they do] here. Artists are looking for creative ways to fund their projects. … It’s a struggle here, and it’s a struggle there.”

Craven said he believes the bureaucracy that comes with applying for government funding ultimately limits artistic freedom by overwhelmingly favoring shows written by Canadian authors. His own company, which tried to produce plays by international writers, has applied and been turned down for state funding several times.

“It’s more about fulfilling a social mandate than the quality and audience potential for a show,” Craven said. “It’s not really a meritocracy where you’re looking at quality bottom line.”

Horowitz said that while the European model worked well for many years, the theater community in the United States must look elsewhere for solutions. Craven said the Internet is making “crowd funding” for shows a more viable solution for small companies, in combination with larger donations. “Abyss,” a music- and movement-based devised production that went up at Yale in March, launched a Kickstarter campaign that eventually raised $15,000 toward the show.

“It’s hard to raise the money to sustain a nonprofit,” Alderman said. “We’re trying to be realistic and not lose sight of the fact that we founded the company out of our garage. … We want it to be fulfilling [and] we’ve grown really fast. But [we’re] also trying to take it fairly slow to make sure we stay true to our mission.”

Horowitz and Sellar said many established theater institutions are beginning to take notice of devised work and program already devised shows into their seasons. But these same institutions find it difficult to sponsor the creation process in-house, in large part because the time frame for devising theater can be both longer and more unpredictable, with the time frame for development ranging from several months to several years. The experimental theater company “Elevator Repair Service” spent an entire decade developing its now widely acclaimed show “Gatz.”

But Horowitz said he believes the solution is for the next generation of artists to simply leave the institutions behind altogether — to make a convincing argument to the funding world for their work rather than hope the institutions themselves will change.

“That change is going to happen outside of those institutions, not inside,” Horowitz said. “What is really needed right now is to have thoughtful, passionate people to take a good hard look at how things have been and how they are. … People are trying to have that conversation, but they’re not necessarily interrogating assumptions of why things are the way they are.”

Comments