The following is a student-written work, presented as part of the Institute for Theatre Journalism and Advocacy (ITJA) competition. The views and opinions expressed in this work are the author’s own.
Dealing with Dreadful Devices
by Pedro Urquia, Florida International University
First Runner Up for Region IV ITJA Advocate Award
Saturday Night Live has a sketch that they bring out from time to time that reflects on the terrible student-written productions that every theatre student experienced in high school. The humor in the sketch comes from the lack of subtlety in the student productions. If the students want to discuss homophobia in America, they kiss each other and implore the audience to “get over it.” If they want to discuss the dangers of unprotected sex, the amateur performers will turn to the audience and proclaim “I have AIDS.” I bring up this recurring sketch because every time I sit in the audience of a devised piece of theatre I am reminded of that SNL skit.
Collaborative theatre shares a lot in common with the political theory of communism. Like communism, this kind of theatre theatre promotes a hive mentality where every person and their individual needs are treated equally. Everyone’s opinion thrusts itself center stage when no one has the courage to kill their darlings for the sake of a uniform opinion. A cacophonous crowd of voices shouting at the audience without any sense of authentic urgency takes the stage. At this point the audience feels like a child being scolded by someone their own age on matters far beyond either’s understanding.
In 2016, I experienced Shoestring Players’ The Pursuit of U.S., a devised piece that attempted to comment on the state of the media, government and lifestyle in America. In 2017, The Mis-Education of Hip Hop, attempts to discuss the Black Lives Matter movement, Hip Hop’s history and the lives of four forgettable characters trying to start a music group. These pieces share the same problem, they fail to focus their narratives and stray into telling the audience how to feel way too often. Telling and not showing seems to be the law of the land in the world of devised theatre. Grave life decisions are casually brought up in their tale that lends no credence to anything happening on the stage. Characters complete total reversions of their personalities in mere seconds without reasonable explanations.
The biggest sin with pieces like Pursuit of U.S. and Mis-Education of Hip Hop, appears in the form of exploitative sensationalism. Topics are ripped from the headlines and rubbed in the noses of the audience until they are forced to react. Manipulation rules supreme, and it leaves a sickening feeling in the audience by the time the cast takes their bow. Actual discussions are abandoned over what I have termed “tabloid theatre.”
Unfortunately, these pieces are not completely devoid of merit. When the actors/writers/directors focus on facts and creating complete characters onstage the group actually speaks as one and delivers truth on stage. In the case of Mis-Education, there are enough facts about the history of hip hop to create a decent one act about the voices of those hip hop artists that some have forgotten. Collaboration could very well lead to a story that follows a single narrative thread and awards the audience with new knowledge. Instead, audiences are punished with the disjointed tragedies of four characters that are too underdeveloped to care about. With frenzied flourishes of a red pen, an amateur editor could pluck some humanity from the depths of this plays’ cold, unfeeling heart.
There remains the possibility that nothing can save the naïve sentimentality of devised theatre. Trying to cram all the ideas of every author of a play leads to the classic “too many cooks” scenario. With everyone trying to form an opinion on a single subject, no opinion comes from the final product. Plays like this hint at bigger ideas that go unexplored. Themes that get abandoned halfway through their analysis. This causes the audience to leave the theatre unsure whether or not they actually got anything from the piece or were force fed an idea until it appeared to be their own. It comes off as a less successful and neophyte attempt at brainwashing the audience into agreeing with the latest liberal cause. Wanting to win an audience over with integrity would be a commendable goal, but attempting to do so with a handful of talking points amounts to nothing in the end.
With some soul-crushing imagination and decades of rewiring, I can see the methods of creating devised theatre coming together to make more complete and earnest stories. If a designated leader became traditional in collaborative work, then I can even envision community theatres putting on whole seasons consisting of only their devised works. As it stands, the infantile nature of the craft shows in the lack of finesse behind the pieces of this generation. I believe we are currently watching this style’s awkward years of puberty. With time, it could turn out to be a wonderful commentary on the world around us or remain an SNL-parody of itself.