Bush's Research Associate.James Wilson explores what happens when one person writes another's story, and asks who's story is it really?
How does one person write another's story? How does a group of seven write one story? Whose story is it?
This autumn a group of seven co-authors and I will be creating a play together at the Bush. The theme that brings us together is family history. We all have families. Most of us try hard not to become our parents. Many of us do. Every family has its secrets. What are the things we share? What makes us unique? How did we all get here? Beginning with this very general theme, can a group of devisers find a common story?
In my role as Research Associate at the Bush this year, I will be assisting the new artistic team as they re-examine the process of developing new writing. As the Bush asks big questions about new writing—How are plays made? What kinds of support do writers and companies need to get their work from page to stage? How can development programmes become more transparent? What is 'new writing' anyway?—I will be pursuing a research project of my own. And I’ll post to this blog once a fortnight to let you know how it’s going.
Like the team at the Bush, I believe that we are in a period of major change for new writing, in which artists do not necessarily create work in the image of the isolated writer in a dark office somewhere. Writers are social beings, and increasingly their work is as well. Aside from the private mornings or nights in front of a computer screen, much of the writing of a play happens in meetings and rehearsals with actors, directors and designers. This open secret of playwriting has become increasingly explicit as even a quick glance at the last few years in London theatre reveals. Devising has been mainstream for years. (www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatreblog/2007/mar/12/isdevisedtheatrealwaysaca/). Theatre companies are bringing groups of writers together to create layered pieces on broad themes (nationaltheatre.org.uk/discover/nt-production/greenland). Immersive practices purport to make audience members on-the-spot collaborators (http://www.punchdrunk.org.uk). Venerable institutions like the Royal Shakespeare Company are experimenting with ensemble creation (http://www.rsc.org.uk/about-us/ensemble/about-ensemble.aspx). It seems everyone's trying to come to terms with all the different ways you can write a play. In a time in which sharing and collaboratively creating content have become some of the primary ways in which we communicate and create, it's only natural that the theatre should evolve as well.
What interests me most about this interest in social ways of making theatre is the 'why' of it all. Isn't it easier to sit in a room, write a play, send it off and enchant a producer somewhere and let another artistic team take it on, without inviting their input, or meddling in their work? Sure, it is. And some audiences, longing for well-made plays and ‘texts telling stories’, denouncing collaboration as another word for messy, are skeptical of these changes http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/dec/13/comment.theatrenews). On one hand it's true; collaboration is messy, and challenges multiply when when strong-headed artists come together. But artists keep trying it. The turn toward collaboration now is more than a fad—it's a realisation that together, people can create more complex, far-reaching, creative work when the alchemy strikes. In my experience with both ‘traditional’ playwriting processes and more collectively devised projects, there is something in the unpredictability and, yes, difficulty of working in a group that can lead to more exciting, original and relevant plays that reveal both our individuality as human beings and the things we share—when the stars align miraculously, of course, and the whole thing doesn't fall on its face.
I have spent the last two years researching these questions as part of my PhD work in Theatre and Performance at the University of Warwick. The thing that I have noticed over and over is that the artists that work in these ways tend to believe they are doing something good when they work socially. When they succeed, they feel particularly fulfilled, and they believe that their collaborators also feel this way. To be sure, this can be an illusion (perhaps the wretched mistakes that this belief has sometimes led to will be the subject of another post), but when social writing is at its best, the creative process itself rewrites social realities, allowing or inspiring people who might otherwise have been observers to become co-authors.
Okay, that's pretty grand, I'll admit, a tall order for a simple little devising process. Can an essentially artistic process with a small group of artists really hope to change social structures? Probably not. Should it? I don’t know. But maybe there is something in such a devising process that can have a meaningful impact on those that participate and those that watch from the outside. Perhaps.
Over the autumn, as we share our family histories, we will ask ourselves these questions. And I'll let you know what we find out. Next time, I’ll tell you about our first workshop.