With devised theatre and creative collaborations becoming increasingly popular, we are very excited to have Stephen O'Connell (Artistic Director of bluemouth inc.) teaching Collective Creation: The Pluralized Director at the Conservatory this year. In the lead up to his workshop, we've asked Stephen a few questions about his ideas and experiences in creating devised theatre and working in collectives:
What exactly is devised theatre?
I collectively began creating site specific performance in Vancouver with a company called Radix Theatre around 1990. I remember someone at the time suggesting we document the process so we could share our discoveries with other practitioners. However, we found that each new project we were presented with had a completely unique set of challenges that it became increasingly impossible and somewhat undesirable to nail down a prescriptive method for devising.
|Stephen organizing a canoe trip for bluemouth's|
new creation with Necessary Angel.
The only consistent rules that we could all agree upon was that all the material we would use had to be originally created. No found text. No prerecorded music. No appropriated video. All original. All new. All the time. The word devising didn’t exist for us at the time. We simply wanted to exercise our own voice and we felt more than capable of creating the images and words to do that. It wasn’t until later that we heard the word devising used to describe UK performance companies that were creating work that shared a similar methodology.
In the early phase of my experience with collective creation we all felt the need to contribute equally. Literally counting the number of words or ideas each person contributed to make sure that we were all represented equally.
Later in our creative development we began recognizing the affinity that certain individual in the collective had to certain modes of expression. One person was a really strong writer while another person was particularly gifted at singing. Rather than limit one another’s excellence we began to celebrate our talents and exploit it for the good of the idea.
Why do you think it's becoming increasing popular among emerging theatre artists?
I recently attended a book signing by a renowned Artistic Director from an independent New York company that devises theatre. I found it to be an incredibly illuminating experience. I was fascinated to be in a room surrounded by actors who historically had imbued the words of others and who had now been given the responsibility to speak from their own creative voice.
It was as if a door that had been closed for centuries had suddenly been open and there was no way of retreating back. These actors wanted to continue speaking. They wanted to express their own thoughts with their own voice. They weren’t ready to completely abandon hierarchy, they still desired guidance from the director, however in my estimation a welcome step forward had been taken and a major shift in the theatrical paradigm has begun to take shape.
bluemouth is currently in the middle of new project with Jennifer Tarver and Jordan Tannahill. Can you tell us a bit about that project, and what the process has been like?
|Field Guide by bluemouth inc. at Summerworks 2013|
Last August during the SummerWorks Performance Festival bluemouth presented a sketch of a new show called Field Guide in Trinity Bellwoods Park that proposed to explore the notion of grief. A number of us had recently experienced the passing of an immediate family member and we wanted to explore the complex emotional landscape associated with significant loss. This is often how we get started. Someone from the collective identifies a theme and we tangentially begin gathering and generating images around that idea. Sometimes independent of one another, sometimes collectively in studio.
We realized at the end of the summer process that we had gotten stuck. Either as a result of the weight of the theme or the fatigue of working together for so many years or more accurately a bit of both. We recognized that something had to change in order to unstick the work. We decided to invite new people into the group in hopes of helping us uncover some of the truths we wished to unravel.
|Richard Windeyer and Stephen O'Connell|
We approached Jennifer Tarver the new Artistic Director of Necessary Angel and Jordan Tannahill from Suburban Beast. We respected both Jennifer and Jordan’s work and intuitively felt they shared an aesthetic sensibility with the bluemouth collective. We all had our first blind date in January at the new Artscape Youngplace building where we locked ourselves in a studio together for two weeks. During this concentrated period some of the creative goo that held us back started to come undone. At the end of this first dating period we eagerly agreed to continue the romance.
For the first time in bluemouth history we have invited into the process someone who was designated as the director in this case Jennifer and someone else who was designated as the writer, in this case that would be Jordan. I had always felt that certain hierarchical titles would inhibit the creative process, but in the interest of unsticking what had become stuck we decided to give it a whirl. What I discovered was very little had changed in our creative process. We still contributed in a fluid and associative manner however this time someone else was attempting to keep track of the inherent logic.
|Jordan Tannahill with bluemouth inc.|
We briefly had the pleasure of inviting Daniel McIvor to wrestle with us in the studio for an entire week. It was quite fascinating watching the worlds of narrative logic collide with the abstraction of collective creation. I felt like a scientist testing out a new theory. Bending and manipulating our ideas until they would eventually broke or learned to withstand the force of logic. I had a personal epiphany when Daniel announced as a matter of fact that we hadn’t spent the last 2 years developing a piece about grief, we were actually creating a piece about love. That is collaboration at its best. When someone can simply take an object that you have been focused on for an extended period of time and suddenly turn it on its side so you see it as something completely new. That is pure magic.
What do you consider the challenges in creative collaborations and how do you think your workshop can help overcome them?
Language. Finding the words. Naming it. Owning it.
Over the course of the workshop we will work together to create new strategies for making theatre. Templates designed as points of departure to begin building the creative journey. Where do you begin? How can you fill the empty space?
Collaboration involves genuine listening, strong communicating and inevitably action. I will propose some warm up exercises designed to facilitate the unsticking of the creative goo. Followed by brainstorming, prototyping and performing short collectively created performances.
What do you want participants to take away from your workshop?
The confidence to trust your creative impulses. The knowledge that it is okay to create within a state of ambivalence. The trust that intuition is actually the art of informed choice. The courage to get up on our feet and start embodying the theatre we envision.