Brittney Bressler: "Devising Dracula: Creating Destructive Theatre in the 21st Century" Transcript
Hi, my name is Brittney, and I will be presenting my Honors project titled “Devising Dracula: Creating Destructive Theatre in the 21st Century.” Before I begin I just want to make a note that the theatre department production on which this project is based has been postponed to the fall due to COVID-19. I was planning on including photos from the rehearsal process this spring, but since I can no longer do that, I will be including a few phots from our last production: “Frankenstein in Active Creation.” These photos will illustrate some of the same concepts.
This project will attempt to answer three major questions. First, what is devised theatre? Second what does the devising process look like, and third, why should devised theater be important to 21st century theatre makers? As said before, I will be using my work on Dracula in Active Destruction to explain what devised theatre is and what the devising process looks like in order to demonstrate that has the potential to produce more impactful and engaging works of theatre. Let’s begin with the first question.
Devised theatre is theatre that operates horizontally, rather than hierarchically, beginning with an idea or source, rather than a script. This idea is further explored and defined through collaboration with an artistic ensemble. So what do I mean by theatre that operates horizontally, rather than hierarchically?
In order to addres this, leats look at some history, beginning with the most influential example of hierarchy in the West, Aristotle’s “Poetics.” In his Poetics, Aristotle established theory of tragedy based on poetic tragedy. There are six elements of tragedy. First there is the plot, or structure of events. The plot is the goal of the tragedy, or some may say the soul of the tragedy. Second is characters, those who act out the action. Third is thought – the thesis or theory the characters attempt to prove. Fourth is diction, or wording or expression of words. Fifth is song, so it’s song or lyrical verse combined. Sixth is the spectacle, which is the aesthetic elements that have an emotional effect, emphasizing the aforementioned elements. So the spectacle would probably include costumes or in that time masks and sets and props, and in our time sound and light elements as well.
Now there is quite a bit of debate surrounding what these elements exactly mean, especially epectacle. The the translation can be interpreted in many ways, but we do know that all elements follow necessarily from the written drama. The song and the spectacle are presumably, but we don’t know cfor sure due to discrepencies. But it’s presumably the least necessary.
So here is a visual representation of what this hierarchy looksl ikel. You have plot at the top and spectacle at the bottom. No we’re going to jump forward quite a few years to the avant-garde movement when Aristotle’s hierarchy was challenged.
The term avant-garde refers to a group of movements in art, but of course we are going to focus on the movement in theatre from roughly 1890 to 1950. Avant-garde is French, referring to the front guards of the advancing army, and it was believed that the artists would be the first of three sets of “troops” that would be involved in guiding society. Some of the most notable movements in the theatre were symbolism, futurism, expressionism, and surrealism. And while there is a great variety of beliefs amongst these movements, some of the unifying similarities are that they challenge the routines, assumptions, hierarchies, and legitimacy of existing political and/or cultural intuitions.
They especially challenged the institutions of theater such as Aristotle’s hierarchy and the realism and naturalism, which were very prominent at the time. And these movements placed an emphasis on story character psychology and linear plots, which aligns with Aristotle’s hierarchy, only the only difference would be that the realists and naturalists place more emphasis on character than on anything else.
Avant garde proposed a new inverted hierarchy that emphasized sensory experiences and spectacle and performance over text, giving power to the hierarchical minority.
One of the most influencial figures of the avant-garde in theatre was Antonin Artaud, who was a French dramatist, and he opted for a “theatre of cruelty” that attacked the senses of the audience. The proposed his own hierarchy with spectacle at the forefront. And in doing so he attempted to sever the connection that Aristotle created between literature and theatre and really define theatre on its own.
Here is a visual representation f what Artaud’s hierarchy might look like. He called it the themes. It’s a little less concrete than Aristotles, but here is a visual representation. Spectacle is the most important, and all other elements surround it. They might pop in and out taking precedence, but they all support the spectacle.
Now we jump forward again a few years to the late 1950s and ‘60s and the rise of postmodernism. Postmodern theatre is a little hard to define, but overall it was associated with experimentation and the search for new forms. At this time ther was also the rise of deconstruction, which involved dismantling the hierarchy of theatrical elements and examining their potential individually.
Mary Overlie was a dancer, choreographer, and theatre artist, and she proposed a new set of elements organized non-hierarchically. These elements are space, shape time, emotion, movement, and story.
Here is a visual represntaiton of what Mary Overlie’s hieararchy looks like, which is non-hierarchical. It’s on a horiziontal plane. None of the elments have more importace than another. So this is an important point because if the story or the written drama does not take precendence, then they story of the play does not have to take place first in the written process. Therefore while the story still exists the role would look a little different. This dismantling of the hierarchy of the elements results in the dismantling of another hierarchy.
This is the traditional production hierarchy. The playwright writes a play. A producer buys a play and hires a director to direct it. Each person has a very specific role in the process in order to achieve the director’s vision of the play created by the playwright. But if we dismantle this hierarchy, it might look something like this. Now there are changes made depending on the specific needs of a specific theatre company, but in general this is what a non-hierarchical artistic ensemble looks like, which is a devised theatre ensemble. So memebers are not restricted to their specific roles, so an actor could become a playwright or a choreographer or whatever else. This way each member of the ensemble can utilize their full range of artistic talents. Now it’s still important for a director outside eye to view the work from an audience point of view and they can guide the ensemble, they can play a role in sequencing, they can refine performance before the show is put up, but the ultimate difference is that instead of realizing just the director’s vision based on the playwright’s play, you’re realizing the entire ensemble’s artistic vision. Sometimes there’s a lead artist that guide’s the collaborative work, and a playwright can contribute text material during the process and help structure the piece and then turn the finished piece into a script, which is the step that comes last.
Now we address the next two questions. What are some devise theatre methods, and what does does the devising process look like?
The first method I will be discussing is moment work. Moment work was developed by Moises Kaufman and his company Tectonic Theatre Project. The method rose out of deconstructionism and postmodern movement. This method involves isolating each theatrical element in a moment, which can be defined as a moment of theatrical time. Individual moments are sequenced, expanded and layered.
So here is the structure of a moment. On the left we have the blank container. The person says, “I begin.” Then something happens. Then the person says, “I end.” On the right, this is what a prop moment might look like, featuring an umbrella. The person says, “I begin.” Then the person holds an open umbrella straight out in front of them with the top of the canopy facing the audience. Person spins the umbrella to the left. Person spins the umbrella to the right. Then the person says, “I end.” And this container can be filled with any theatrical element that the ensemble might want to explore. They can do this with light, with costume, and they can just say they begin and then do something interesting with the prop, costume, light, etcetera.
The next method is viewpoints and composition. And this is an expansion upon Overlie’s six viewpoints. Directors Bogart and Landau expanded the six into nine viewpoints. They define this method as one that trains actors in collaboration, awareness, and creating movement for the stage. This method expands upon Overlie’s original six viewpoints. They explore the theatrical elements one at a time. It’s just a different way of exploring them.
The second part of this method is composition. In composition naturally follows from viewpoints turning. Viewpoints develop the ensemble’s awareness of the elements of theatre, and composition is the act of actually writing with the ensemble. Composition are comparable to scenes, whereas a moment would be a part of a scene.
Time limits are given, group sizes change depending on what would be challenging to the ensemble. There are structure, content requirements, thematic props, and just like moments, they can be adapted, layered, sequenced, etcetera.
Now we move to “Dracula: An Act of Destruction.” How did we create Dracula using moments and viewpoints? First we explore the source. Devise theatre always begins with something that inspires the imagination: a theme, idea, event, written source, etcetera. Both Kaufman and Bogart call this theme a hunch. Our hunch was Dracula by Stoker. The ensemble explores the hunch through research, which is normally done by a director or dramaturg. In our approach, this is done by the whole ensemble. Research can include but is not limited to personal experience, written sources, historical events, visual art, music, movies, etcetera. Our research also included original creations by the ensemble, many of which have been included in the show.
Our research culminated in a dramaturgy bible, and dramaturgy is just another word for research, specifically in relation to a theatre production. And this bible was composed of ensemble research papers and here is a list of what our bible included. Everything that Dracula and its themes inspired. We have a section on in-class explorations. We have a whole section on the evolution of vampires, fear, Pandora and Lileth. As you know Pandora released destruction into the world, including disease, which is relevant to our time.
Now we move into devising. So how did we devise scenes from the novel? There are three scenes – the carriage to castle Dracula, the weird sisters, and the Demeter. So how do we put these on stage without focusing on the text? We use something called the frames exercise, and this is a composition exercise using exquisite pressure. It reduces scenes to their most essential and theatrical images, and it rebuilds the narrative using the language and elements of theatre rather than the language of the novel.
This photo is from our production of Frankenstein, and it was taken during the scene when the creature observes the family and begins learning. And it was made during the frames exercise.
So here are the details of the exercise. Beforehand the ensemble is divided into smaller groups. Step one, a group creates three or five, depending on the scene, still images with blackouts in between controlled by the director. This was not an actual blackout, but every one of the audience closed their eyes. This may include set pieces, props, costumes, but the main theatrical element is the image.
Step two: add a line of text to each still image and movement to transition between frames. Sound may be also added to transitions. And step three: the images are dissolved, light is added, and any other theatrical elements that are needed and the scene is perfected as the ensemble sees fit.
Here is a visiual representation of the exercise. And this is based on an analogy that bogart, Landau and Kauffman all use. It’s a track analogy. So imagine an audio software that you might use to record music, and in that software you might begin with a drum track. You might also imagine a movie and how there’s a film track and a soundtrack. This is the track of step one with image as the only element. So there are three images in this example: image, blackout, image, blackout, and image. And that is the track.
So now we have step two and we add three more tracks, the text track, the movement track and the sound track. And as you can see the image and track go at the same time: the movement and sound come in, and we can imagine if we added music of theatre.
And this is step three. And we’ve added two more tracks: the light track and the prop track. This is going to change depending on what the group is doing, how many elements they are adding, and you can add elements indefinitely to this analogy to show how these elements work together. And as we can see from this visual that we took this complex text from a novel and we turned it into the language of theatre.
Now we move to devising characters. Devising methods could also be used to explore and create characters. In a traditional setting the playwright creates a character and the director explores the character through analysis. But in devise theatre an entire ensemble explores a character through composition. He is a supernatural character. So we wanted to know how we can make Dracula walk on walls. How can we make him move so quickly as described in the novel. So we created compositions to answer these questions. We used the full range of theatrical elements to create the character, including lights, props, everything at our disposal. And when we experimented with how he walks on walls, one group put shadows up on a wall, and another turned furniture on its side and shined light in such a way that it looked like the actors were actually crawling on a wall. But in doing so multiple theatrical elements and members of the ensemble all became integral parts of the character.
This photo was taken after the creation of the creature in our Frankenstein. And the shadows were created by all of the ensemble members holding flashlights.
And this is perhaps the best illustration of how an ensemble and elements can become character. And this is our ensemblecreature from Frankenstein.
So the next very important part of the devising process is providing feedback for each other. After presenting compositions and moments, it’s important that the ensemble provides feedback on what they saw as an audience. So we ask questions like “what stuck?”, “what took our breath away?”, what impacted us viscerally, emotionally, sensorially?” What happened? What did it seem like happened onstage? We did a structural analysis, so what literally happened on stage? She walked across the stage; she sat on a chair. Or interpretive analysis, what did it seem like happened on stage. It was as if she had a bad day and she was going to sit down defeated. And so we can use the instructional analysis and interpretive analysis to protect the communication of the theatre we are creating. And oftentimes if the structural analysis isn’t clear, then the interpretive analyses isn’t clear as well. So feedback helps the analysis stay revised and fine. And in these moments it’s great because the ensemble can act as the director as well.
So now we draft the script, which comes last in the process. Dracula was structured by our director with input form the ensemble, which created an outline of events form novel and chose the essential ones. The director structured script using research material, original creations, and compositions. Every theatre company is different, developing what works best for them, but ultimately, it is helpful to have someone who guides the collective vision. And obviously we were working in an educational setting, so we had to have someone who guided us thorugh this process.
The great thing is the script can change as much as it needs to. Our Dracula script is not yet complete. We still have a couple of spots where our script is not yet complete. But we will need to continue with the ensemble exploration as long as it’s needed.
So why should 21st century theatre artists care about devised theatre? Let’s revision Artaud. This is a quote: “an idea of the teatre has been lost. And as long as the theatre limits itself to showing intimate scenes from the lives of a few puppets . . . it is not wonder the elite abandon it . . . to the movies, the music hall or the circus for violent satisfaction . . . it is certain that we need above all a theatre that wakes us up: nerves and heart.” So what Artaud is saying is interesting. He’s saying that there’s no wonder people prefer modern day entertainment and technology. Modern day theatre artists must compete with these things, which are more convenient, easier to access. Why would you choose to go to the theatre? The theatre is the only place where we can experience an alternative reality in real time and space. It’s not like virtual reality. We actually have humans in front of us portraying this alternative reality.
So why are we limiting theatre? Why are we not exploring the potential of what theatre can communicate? Why are we underutilizing the elements that are unique the theatre? Why are we trying to recreate reality when we could create an alternative one right before our eyes?
So I propose in similar fashion to Artaud, let’s destroy the limits so that the elements of theatre may be used to their full potential so that theatre artists may utilize their full range of capabilities and so that we may experience the world of the stage. And therefore we keep defining theatre as its own art form separate from literature and we will have no problem competing with other forms of media.
And so I leave you with this: transformation follows destruction. At the end of our production of Dracula, Pandora, who just released destruction upon the world at the beginning of the show by opening her box revisits her box and releases hope, which transforms the destruction taking place around her into something better. And that is my hope for theatre: that we may use this idea of destruction in the theatre that we create so that we can transform our audiences.