I would posit that if you asked most theatre goers about devised theatre, including veteran season ticket holders, you would get a lot of blank stares and "what is devised theatre?" responses. I would go even further to say that some theatre professionals would respond with "well, I've heard of it but I don't know much about the process." How would you describe devised theatre, and what does it mean to you?
I think people don't know what devised is because there's no singular definition for what it is. At the very basic it's a piece of theatre that's created from the ground up. You start with an idea or prompt that can either be given to or generated from the ensemble itself. Then the ensemble explores that and creates the script from ground zero. When people talk about devised it is text or script created or generated by a group.
How did you first get involved in this type of work?
The very first time I devised anything, it was my senior year of undergrad [college]. I worked with The Living Theatre and crafted a piece titled Salem, Virginia. It was either 2003 or 2004 when we made it. I remember thinking it was really weird, but I liked the process of it. I remember enjoying it but I don't remember falling in love with it, it was at the time a little more abstract than even I was used to. I wasn't sure if anyone would watch it, from there I kind of let it go for a while. When I got out of my graduate program in 2011, I met a group from Amsterdam. Their goal was to bring a very naturalistic American method acting style and merge it with their creative devised style and see what would happen. It ended up working very well, and that's when I got into it more consistently.
Has your view of this process changed over time?
I always thought it was a very fascinating way to work, but when I first started I don't know that I ever saw it as a legitimate career. When I went over to Amsterdam and saw the festivals and culture there I realized that it was the kind of theatre that I wanted to make because it was more personal and more exciting [than traditional scripted theatre]. I also saw that it seemed to mean something more to not only the people watching but also the people involved. The thing I really liked about it there and in other European countries was the general willingness to try something new and different, even in commercial mainstream theatres. I see it now as a way to make theatre fresh and exciting for audiences today.
I understand that the opportunity to do devised theatre played into your choice to pursue your PhD at Texas Tech.
It certainly played a large part. When I told Dr. [Mark] Charney [Chair of Texas Tech's School of Theatre and Dance program] what I wanted to do with devised programs, he was very supportive. Plus, the school has a relationship with the Marfa devised program, which is different from my devising method but something that I also can embrace. So it seemed that he and the program were already on board with this experimental approach which was exciting.
Can you walk us through how your particular method of devising works? How does this compare / contrast with other artists involved in this type of work?
Some methods tend to generate more of a text based product. At some point somebody takes the work that's been done by the ensemble into a private room and comes back with an outline or script. I like to work with pieces that are ensemble generated and ensemble owned. I never want to take a piece away and come back with something that's not reflective of what's given by the group. I think that it's super important that everyone has something unique and different that they want to say. I like to honor that by giving people homework in the form of individual and group prompts and see what people come back with, and then take from that what I see as its core. Then I look at how does that fit into what the next person is saying and what we all are trying to say. And I look at how the rest of the group can do that thing together and tell that story and how does that relate to our overall story. I talk a lot about framework, and I think a lot of artists start with a frame and then try to figure out how to fill that frame with material. I like to start with the material and then figure out what frame best fits that material.
You have a good amount of directing credits on your resume in plays that have a traditional script such as Much Ado About Nothing and The Velveteen Rabbit at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and Cortez at The New York Fringe Festival. Do you enjoy directing devised pieces more and if so why?
Yes, I like directing devised more, but even when I direct traditional scripts I also I like to do them in a more experimental and devised way. I think that it creates a sense of ownership with the cast. When that fits and it's appropriate it's more fun. It's also less pressure to think that there are say eight ideas and to know that I have a choice and that mine doesn't always have to be the best idea. That's a nice feeling.
You've also performed in several devised pieces including The Promised Land at the Over Het Ij Festival in Amsterdam and The Office at the Da Parada Festival in the Netherlands. In this medium, do you prefer acting or directing? Do the lines between the two roles blur? If so how so?
I was talking to my mentor last week about this; at my core I'm a performer and that's what I love to do. But the nice thing about devised is yes you can blur the lines as you mentioned. As a director, I ask what is it that I'm trying to say with the stuff that I'm creating and how does that fit or how can we expand that? It's fun to watch but inside of me I'm always craving "where's my piece" so as a director I try to take that out and really see what's the ensemble doing and trying to say. So it really it gets down to (chuckling) how selfish or removed I want to be in the project. Overall, I enjoy performing but the more I have directed the more I've come to love that as well. It's kind of a coin flip: the more I do one the more I want to do the other. I will say it's super important to have a director in a devised piece. That's something I was playing with my ensemble in New York. Can we generate this without an outside director? You can, but it's difficult and causes a lot of bickering and a lot of wasted rehearsal time. I was originally going to be a performer in Safe Passage, but we realized it was going to be too much to be in and out of the performance. It really needs that outside eye that can frame things.
Let's shift focus to Safe Passage, a piece that you and I have been privileged to be a part of, you as director and myself as a collaborating performer. The prompt that led to Safe Passage is "Entrance Without Papers is Forbidden." Can you elaborate on why this subject is important to today's theatre climate as well as our current social and political climate?
The funny thing about the prompt (and devised in general) is that you get a prompt and it can mean anything. We find the meaning. It was really interested when we started. I knew where the piece was initially going to go because of the current political environment: border walls, detainees, and immigration. I wondered if we could go the opposite of what was expected. And in fact when we went through the first round of prompts it was as expected very political. It told the group, "alright for your second go at this go to right field if left field was your first response". The ensemble's response was still super political. I learned to stop listening to what I wanted to say and not get too cute and listen to what the group wanted to say. It was then that the piece really became about otherness with regards to not only immigrants trying to come across borders but also race and marriage laws in America. And then it evolved into how to frame these types of things that we want to talk about. I also really enjoy that we explored within the piece what happens when we take care of each other as opposed to excluding "others."
Which speaks to the collaboration between director and ensemble that might not be as present in a traditional play.
Right, yeah everybody is telling the story and we all have to figure out what that is and what we want to say.
I'd like to circle back to how relatively unknown devised theatre is. Do you think it is palatable to the general public? How would you suggest increasing exposure of this art form? Is devised the future of theatre and should it be?
I don't think it will necessarily be the future of theatre, I don't think traditional scripts are going anywhere. But devised theatre isn't new: The Wooster Group has been devising since the 70's, The Living Theatre's been around since the 60's, The Open Theatre before that. I think right now because of television and film we [the theatre community] have to find a way stay relevant and I see devised theatre as way to do that. I see it as something that has more of a broad appeal that can't be found in HBO or other mediums. The question of how we facilitate that is what I'm working on. In Europe there is an accepted festival culture where you can innovate a show that will be received and embraced because they now have a vocabulary to talk about new and devised performances. In America, if you don't live in New York or Chicago you don't get a lot of chances to see devised theatre so how do people know it exists or know if they like it or not? America needs a venue and that's what I'm working on: creating a festival that will provide opportunities and exposure for devised artists. The biggest problem we have in America is commercial theatre, it's not a safe thing, it's a crap shoot. Which is why I get so excited when shows such as The Tin Man do so well in New York. It's one of my favorite plays I've seen in the last ten years, and it's a completely devised ensemble work. When shows like that do well, it's good for devised, and I think it's good for theatre in general because it's something new. So those are some of the things that give me hope. And now we just need to be able to continue to provide legitimate venues for this work.
Cory Lawson holds an MFA in Acting from The New School for Drama New York City. Acting credits include Jaques in As You Like It at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Lenny in Of Mice and Men at the Bankstreet Theatre, and Bottom in Midsummer Night's Dream at Millbrook Playhouse. Cory is in rehearsal for Canterville, a devised work directed by Randall Rapstine, opening April 29, 2019.