January 28, 2016

Jumping into the Unknown

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By Mack Stannard

Keely O’Brien has just finished her Bachelor of Fine Arts with a major in Theatre Performance from the School for the Contemporary Arts (SCA) at SFU. A devotee to anything creative, especially writing and performance-based art, she was at first somewhat hesitant to delve into a project that would significantly alter her work, but soon found great enthusiasm for the process.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” says Keely, who has just gone through the process known as “devised” theatre, with a screenplay she wrote last summer. When her professor Ker Wells, approached her about creating and using her work in the fall semester’s playmaking course she was both thrilled and nervous to have her work continuously revised.

Devised theatre, also called collaborative creation, is a form of theatre where the script is created not from a single writer, but from collaborative, usually improvisatory, work by a large group of people.

Over the summer of 2015, Ms. O’Brien worked on the narrative and during that time they were successful in securing a fellowship from the Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology, (FCAT) to support their work.

FCAT offers Undergraduate Research Fellowship Awards to “encourage students to pursue research in their field of study and expand the research opportunities available to undergraduate students in FCAT”. Students are awarded funds and the opportunity to work with a leading faculty member to work on academically relevant research.

By the start of the fall semester, Ms. O’Brien was ready to begin work in the playmaking class (FPA 253/352), with a goal of a spring, 2016 main stage production as part of FPA 450. That production, Anthropocene, will take place in March at the School for the Contemporary Arts.

Devised theatre plays a large role at SFU because “the SCA Theatre Performance program has a longstanding reputation as a leading school in the country for training theatre artists who want to make their own, original work (as opposed to being actors-for-hire),” explains Professor Wells. Devised theatre lets actors take a larger role in the creation of the story.

For Ms. O’Brien, devised theatre was both anxiety provoking and exhilarating. She felt honored to have been asked by her professor, and was very curious about the impact of collaboration on what has traditionally been a “pre-determined” and “non-negotiable” roadmap for a stage production – the stage play.

Once the class was underway, Ms. O’Brien sat in on several sessions as the students were asked to research and create new work based on some of the elements of her narrative. She worked with the students on a series of creative writing projects, but she also watched and listened to performances, musical compositions, movement pieces, and other devising projects.

The students were not given the text of the play. Instead they were asked to complete projects based on a suggestion by Professor Wells. In devised theatre, how much information is given to the students varies. In this case, they were only told that the work carried a theme of extinction.

“Because there was/is a fairly clear narrative, or set of interwoven narratives, in what Keely wrote, I was cautious about showing it to the students too early: I didn’t want it to restrict their imaginations about what other material they could create. They proved to be very good [at] taking their own ideas and running with them”. Say Wells.

“The results were diverse and exciting. Much of the writing the students produced felt relevant and connected to my writing: some pieces were clearly linked in subject matter or tone while others offered striking contrasts.  I subsequently began incorporating this writing into my existing text, adding single words, snippets, or entire passages. In this way, I intended to take a first step in the direction of expanding the text beyond my personal vision, allowing the ensemble’s input to become evident” explains Ms. O’Brien.

By the end of the semester she felt the work was better for the process. By the time it is actually staged in March, there may be even more changes made. “That is how devised theatre works. You never really know what you will end up with.”

It was a very positive experience for Ms. O’Brien. “My experiences as a textual collaborator illustrates that to enter a devising process is to invite the unknown into the room, yet [to] still strive for clarity and understanding. Whatever is lost as the work transforms is a small price to pay for the richness, mystery, and resonance of that transformation.

She continues to work in a similar environment with her collaborative theatre company, Popcorn Galaxies, which aims to re-enchant the everyday world through theatre, and to “illuminate the mundane by juxtaposing it with the unexpected, and to test the thresholds between imagination and reality, life and theatre.”

Receiving the FCAT Fellowship provided the opportunity for Ms. O’Brien to more fully explore her interest in devised theatre and the collaborative writing process. She will present her final report on the project at FCAT’s Undergraduate Student Conference in February.