The Group Theater

It's a heydey for collaborative work in New York. How six companies put it all together.

Back in 1948, Cole Porter wrote “Another Op’nin', Another Show” for the musical Kiss Me, Kate, a song outlining the typical play production schedule: “Four weeks, you rehearse and rehearse/Three weeks, and it couldn't be worse/One week, will it ever be right?/Then out of the hat it's that big first night.”

Had Porter lived to the present, he may have needed to alter that verse. Some of the best entertainments of recent years—Gatz, No Dice, Gone Missing—took years, not weeks, to build, altogether avoiding a standard rehearsal process. Even as articles mourn a decline in playwriting or predict the death of theater, New York is enjoying a golden era for devised theater, sometimes called creative collaboration—a form in which artists together build a script, often through improvisatory methods and challenging, if not altogether eschewing, the conventional roles of writer, director, actor, designer.

No devised theater group works quite like any other. Some reject hierarchy; some embrace it. Some work collaboratively until a certain moment of development and then place themselves under a director’s sway; some extend their collaboration right up until the opening night. Some work with a set group of artists; some change the personnel for each project. The Voice spoke to six devised theater groups in an effort to capture the diversity of working methods in New York today: the Civilians, the Debate Society, Elevator Repair Service (ERS), Nature Theater of Oklahoma, National Theater of the United States of America (NTUSA), and Radiohole.

The Select (The Sun Also Rises): ERS goes over the river and into the Hemingway
Mark Barton
The Select (The Sun Also Rises): ERS goes over the river and into the Hemingway
Nature Theater of Oklahoma's Obie-winning No Dice
Peter Nigrini
Nature Theater of Oklahoma's Obie-winning No Dice

Scholars have achieved no real consensus on the origins of devised theater. Some trace it all the way back to ancient rituals, others to the practitioners of commedia dell’arte, others believe the movement began more recently with the Dadaists. In Europe, directors such as Jerzy Grotowski, Joan Littlewood, and Peter Brook are often credited with inspiring the current crop of collaborative groups, while in the U.S. an alternate tradition of Happenings and Pop Art, and the work of the Living Theatre, the Performance Group, the Open Theater, and the Wooster Group are most frequently cited.

Not all of the companies interviewed readily accept the label of devised theater. While Steven Cosson, the Civilians’ founder, who trained with Les Waters (one of the founders of the seminal English collaborative company Joint Stock), acknowledges that the Civilians’ first piece, 2002’s Canard, Canard Goose?, was “a more truly devised show,” he says of the group’s recent work, “I don’t consider us a devised company. We’re known for devised ensemble work, but we’re not a devised ensemble.” (Incidentally, he also disdains the labels “Downtown” and “troupe.”) Nevertheless, he does acknowledge that the Civilians’ pieces, which usually begin with associated artists researching and conducting interviews, falls under the rubric of “highly collaborative work.”

And while Nature Theater of Oklahoma shows often begin via conversations with their cast members, and take shape over months and years of rigorously guided experiments, artistic directors Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska reject the notion that their work is devised. “We’re a collective in the sense that we need people to try out what we want to do,” Copper says. Liska adds that he considers his mode “dictatorial theater. It’s not a collaboration. In rehearsal I tell people exactly what to do down to the way they hold their hand. There’s no discussion. There’s no voting. It is not a democracy.”

Each of the companies has a different way of sparking a new show and determining how work on it should progress. For ERS, as its director John Collins explains, each new piece begins by identifying a “big problem.” For 2001’s Room Tone: “Let’s do a show completely in the dark.” For 1996’s Cab Legs: “Let’s do a love story.” For Gatz, which premiered in 2006: "Let's stage an entire novel without cutting it." Then, says Collins, “once we identify the problem, the impossible obstacle, the ridiculous task, we’re ready to start. We start by making sure we don’t know what we’re doing.”

The Debate Society—which consists of director Oliver Butler and performer- writers Paul Thureen and Hannah Bos—begins by creating the world of the play. For Buddy Cop 2, now being remounted as part of the Coil Festival, for instance, the inspirations were “Christmas, cops, and racquetball.” Then the members, says Thureen, “start generating the mass of stuff that feels like the flavor and mood of the world. Then we’ll come in and do in-rehearsal assignments with each other,” after which he and Bos begin a more formal writing process. They also note that each new project is in some ways a reaction against the previous one. As Bos explains, “If the last play had a ton of talking, we know without even discussing it that the next play will have very few words. We’re always hungry for something else.”

Normandy Sherwood, of NTUSA, says their shows start when “one or two people have an idea, some context, a kernel of what the show will be. And their enthusiasm starts a snowball effect that folds the rest of the group into the process.” Similarly, Radiohole’s Maggie Hoffman explains that each new piece of theirs “begins with somebody having something they’re interested in—some book, some movie, some idea—and then they present the idea to everybody and everybody riffs on that and brainstorms.”

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