The Saturday Rough Guide: Devising Community Theatre

Devised theatre is something you either fear and loath, in which you dread the personal haranguing, the criticism from peers and the complete and utter lack of confidence in the material you have come up with…

… or it can be something you come to love and respect in which you are exhilarated by the challenges it presents, the surprises it generates and the moments of understanding and clarity it presents.

When it works well, you come to realise that there’s nothing (much) else in the world that’s worth the aggravation…

… for the rest of us mere mortals the trick is to survive it and try and enjoy it somewhere along the line.

The devising process is as individual as there stars in the heavens: what shines for one person becomes a imploded neutron star of despair for someone else. Consequently this is not a definitive, authoritarian guide. It should be seen as a series of possibilities which you should adapt and tailor to you own particular style and ‘voice’.


Devising is a bit like a completing a jigsaw puzzle without having the benefit of having the box top with the completed picture in front of you. There is no mystery to making devised work: the trick is, as our old Danish colleague, Jakob Oschlag, pointed out is to:


If you have worked on devised work before, you’ll recognise that sections of the process (outlined below) can bleed into each other; you’ll also recognise sections which you’re particularly good at and particularly poor at.

In summary they might go like this…

1. Gather and collect: Personnel, ideas, facts, figures, whims, daydreams, ‘what ifs’, impossible scenarios, dull ideas, bright ideas, snatches of speech, the flotsam and jetsam of everyday and not so every day life.

2. Building components: Where are the connections between your collections? What do they lead to? What links suggest themselves?

3. Building infrastructure: Finding the world your production inhabits, its main protagonists, its central ideas, its main arguments.

4. Shaping: Combining the components into the infrastructure. Not being afraid to jettison structures that don’t fit (they may belong to another project which you are unaware of at this point in time) or changing the infrastructure itself. “Killing your darlings” is a phrase you might hear here a lot.

5. Focusing: Focusing the form and content of your piece; being sure that everything in it has a purpose, a role and a function. Making sure essential bits aren’t left out and that un-necessary bits aren’t left in.

6. Rehearsing: Getting the work into a fit shape for presentation. Concentrating on production values to ensure a polished, confident and convincing piece of work.


1. Anything goes… but everything need not stay
Somewhere at the beginning of the process you are likely to experience that blood rush of having lots of exciting, creative ideas which you are burning to tell the whole group about and get them to take it on board. This is fine and natural and absolutely right for the beginning of the process.

Chances are though that probably everybody will go through that in the group… and that whilst it is the group leaders responsibility to try and look at every idea coming to them , they are not likely to commit to every idea that arrives.

The process of sifting and editing is an essential part of editing; and whilst you may have the most glorious idea and vision, you should accept that it may not be suitable for the particular piece at that particular time and you should be prepared to let that idea drift away should the time come.

This is painful first time round, especially if you have spent a great deal of energy coming up with the idea in the first place but is something you need to come to terms with. Kill Your Babies is something you might hear a lot here.

The thing to remember is that your idea, whilst not necessarily visible, will have caused innumerable and indefinable connections and ideas to have surfaced and so will have had a valuable function in helping create the final piece.

Its also worth remembering that if you get hung up on ‘your idea’ or ‘my idea’ or ‘their ideas’ that actually, ideas belong to no-one and are ten a penny. Ideas are important but not sufficient in their own. Bringing them to a public is as important as their initial generation.

2. The Company of 0 Directors

In an attempt to be democratic, the company of 0 Directors has an individual (the invisible director) who tries their hardest to be the nice guy, the one who wants to minimise (or avoid) conflict and is loathe to upset anyone. The invisible director refuses to make any decision about the project and usually includes every single contribution gathered. This often leads to a piece which is variously seen as surreal or confusing or a mess. It might challenge existing structures or notions of art work but then again it may not: the danger is that it will confuse and dispirit the participants, leading them to feel they won’t get involved in anything ever again. This can lead onto the next syndrome:

2. The Company of 1000 Directors

The first phase of devising is often a very creative, stimulating and exhilarating time what with so much creativity and energy flying around the rehearsal room. However there comes a point, maybe a third of half way into the process where someone needs to start shaping the ideas and structuring them into a performance. This is usually the job of the director (or MD or writer or choreographer) and you may find the way they work a bit alarming after all the freefloating energy and sense of democracy which should have prevailed up until the time they step in.

They may appear short-sighted, blinkered, unlistening or even rude and abrupt. This is because at this point in the process, it is essential that decisions regarding the final structure and content of the piece need to be taken and something approaching the ‘vision’ of the piece needs to established and communicated. Chances are this is best done by a director working with the MD or other relevant staff on the project.

In the absence of this structuring job, the company may revert to the Company of 0 Director syndrome. The temptation often for the other devisors at this point is to chip in and start directing everybody else in the group. This way anarchy lies, especially with a large group, and is something to be avoided where possible.

Author: drnicko

Awarded an MBE for services to arts-based businesses, I am passionate about generating inspiring, socially engaging, creative practice within educational contexts both nationally and internationally.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: