Devising That Needs Revising

By:  Sierra Carlson, ITJA Contributor

              Devised theatre is much like science, it’s a system of trial and error. Devise, perform, revise, and repeat. Unfortunately, The Shoestring Players’ The Pursuit of U.S. is an example of a devised work that still needs revising.

These eight devisors take a huge bite out of the American pie, and taste homophobia, class division, conception, contraception, race relations, gender relations, government involvement, gun violence, media bias, and immigration reform in under two hours. Indeed, this production is intended to examine what makes an American. However, the argument is disarrayed to a point that questions whether or not there was an argument in the first place. At this point, these eight players take on too much and do so randomly.

As a result, topics don’t get equal dialogue. A talk show sketch featuring three male actors unintentionally parallels this problem. In it a distinguished black professor, a young stoner, and a misogynistic southern Baptist are seated and ready to debate immigration reform. The conversation quickly turns, transforming into a battle between professor and preacher over their preference for chocolate or vanilla ice cream. The original topic, immigration, is abandoned entirely and replaced with a discussion on race relations, which has previously been explored through movement, projections, and scene work. Not once does the production truly dive into the issue of immigration.

The playbill, much like the production, is unfocused. The director’s note is three sentences long and each sentence claims something different about the work. The first sets up that the production is about several couples chasing the American dream. Next we read that the performance is a critique on “various aspects of America.” Finally, the last sentence claims that this afternoon of theatre asks what it takes “to cut the strings that freedom is bound by.” The three sentences are unrelated and they give no clear expectations of what is about to happen on stage.

What happens is this. The Pursuit of U.S. is a chaotic assortment of sketches rooted in reality, surreal skits, music, and movement. Pulled apart, the individual aspects make sense. Three couples share their story in chronological segments, focusing on the social and economic differences between them. The movement pieces pull out and focus on specific groups from the ensemble, making points about empowerment and evolution. When these are thrown together, with the addition of abrupt skits, the styles collide and confuse.

The audience is in need of a life line, being pushed and pulled in so many directions. The shock factor exploited in certain scenes only worsens the blows. There is a fine line between responsible and irresponsible use of offensive language. Responsible treatment of “mature” language is specific, used to further develop plot and character. Irresponsibly it offends, stripping away a production’s integrity. The Pursuit of U.S. uses language irresponsibly, off-handedly misusing a word for comedic value.  The name of one character in the piece is an indisputable sexist slur. Oppression is converted to a punchline and I am not laughing.

The Pursuit of U.S. needs revisiting. There is work worth keeping and to honor that work is to clarify it. Consider again devised theatre as a science. Mathematicians spend years analyzing equations, trying to place the numbers perfectly. If they do, something new is discovered about our universe. In the same way The Pursuit of U.S. is trying to solve the American equation, they just have yet to put the numbers in the right order.