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.”

While a few Civilians projects have been suggested by other company members (like the divorce play now in development called You Better Sit Down), most of their shows commence with Cosson bringing “a very broad subject,” often a daunting one, to his collaborators. “That’s an unwritten rule of the company,” he says. “If you don’t feel that fear, then it’s not important enough to pursue.” Liska says he usually begins with a “stupid idea,” but one just interesting enough to drive people into the rehearsal room. (An example: Doing the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet in super slow motion, so that it lasts an hour and a half.)

It’s interesting to note that, with the exception of the Civilians, each of these companies launched themselves with extant scripts, either an original or one adapted from another source. ERS commenced with a Dadaist play, Mr. Antipyrine, Fire Extinguisher, the Debate Society with a Symbolist one, A Thought About Raya. Nature Theater debuted with Three Sisters. NTUSA began with a script James Stanley had written on a film shoot, while Eric Dyer penned Radiohole’s Bender before teaming with any of his collaborators. (Both NTUSA and Radiohole established their collaborative methods because everyone wanted to act in those scripts, leaving no one to direct them.) In subsequent years, these companies have all rejected such pre-existing texts, while the Civilians now often employ more typical playwriting.

Yet even as the process of composition has become more free-form, many companies have moved from an intensely democratic model of collaboration to a somewhat more stratified one, often as a means of resolving conflict. “Having worked together for 10 years,” the Civilians’ Cosson says, “we’ve defined our boundaries over the course of this evolution. The phases of the work are more delineated, and it’s certainly more defined who’s in charge of the script.”

At NTUSA, Yehuda Duenyas explains, “it’s not so much of a free-for-all anymore. Structuring the collaboration has made it much, much easier. We used to fight a lot and it was really miserable in rehearsal.” Yet he also believes that some of that conflict “is what made our early work really fun and awesome. But you exhaust that way of working.” He and Sherwood do observe that while various roles of director and writer are now more established in preparing The Golden Veil, slated for the Kitchen this fall, the group still decided many of the production’s aspects via voting.

Like NTUSA, Radiohole, who are currently remounting the gleefully messy melodrama Whatever, Heaven Allows (WHA?!)at the Collapsable Hole, used to suffer terrible fights. But on WHA?!, the cast (two of whom had recently given birth) elected Dyer as a final arbitrer. “Eric having control made it really easy and really nice,” says company member Hoffman. “Before we had that, we fought all the time, constantly. I think about a dress rehearsal when a chair got thrown at a photographer and the show was going to be canceled.” Yet Dyer, like Duenyas, sometimes longs for this more chaotic stage of their collaboration. “I don’t miss fighting at all,” he says, “but I worry about not accessing these interesting and surprising places because there isn’t friction.”

Collins has gradually assumed a more central role at ERS, but he also sees power relationships change even in the course of a single play—it’s highly collaborative at the outset, then he takes on a somewhat authoritarian role, then he again allows for participation once the show has been running. “It’s a process that moves gradually from being more democratic to much less democratic to being a little democratic again,” he says. “With Gatz, a show we’ve been working on forever, we’re at a point now where it’s easier for someone to come to me with a new idea about it.”

Alternatively, Nature Theater of Oklahoma has always maintained a strict hierarchy. Liska, who takes a cheerfully tyrannical attitude to play development, says, “People imagine we all get together in a room and say, ‘So what should we do, guys?’ Then somebody comes up with an idea, and we vote on it, and we try it out, and then at the end of the day, somebody says, So what did we like about today?’ You’d have to have 12 years to make a show. You’d be spending all your time discussing.” (The Debate Society, who do attempt to resolve any aesthetic questions via discussion, take about 18 months to create each project.)

Most groups cite a development schedule of between one and two years per show. For some projects, such as Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s ongoing 10-part, 24-hour-long, biographical musical Life and Times or the Civilians’ ambitious new project on climate change, The Great Immensity, the process may take much longer. Companies can work more quickly—as in Radiohole’s 2008 Anger/Nation, created in nine weeks—if subsidies exist to pay group members full time.

While a few groups can now fund a small staff year-round, most artists work for free during most of the rehearsal process and supplement their income with a variety of other work—nannying, DJ-ing, set-building, waiting tables, computer programming, roof garden construction, playing the harp at weddings, etc. Dyer jokes that he has recently become a hit man for Mexican drug cartels: “It’s lucrative. It doesn’t take much of my time.”

Several companies are eager to emphasize that even a 12-month process doesn’t imply daily or even weekly rehearsals. Many groups like to provide—or, depending on funding, have to provide—fallow periods in which company members can leave a project and then return to it reinvigorated and with new perspective. Even Cosson, who seems quite skilled at attracting financial support, notes “there’s a big gap in the beginning when you have an idea and you’re trying to figure out how to make it possible, because all of our funding is project specific.” Though as the Civilians often work on several projects at once, in addition to performance and touring, there’s relatively little down time.

Lengthy rehearsal schedules and flexible development processes mean that shows sometimes alter almost entirely from initial concept—rare in traditional theater, but commonplace in devised work. Collins notes that Highway to Tomorrow, ERS’s take on The Bacchae, actually began with The Great Gatsby, then turned to The Last Tycoon before arriving at Euripides. A couple of dances inspired by Tycoon’s film version survived into the final performance. The Great Immensity, the Civilians’ climate change play, actually began as a piece about time. Radiohole’s initial interest in Moby Dick became Fluke, an odd piece that rendered the performers blind for much of the show.

One of the reasons that many shows take such strange is that few companies hew to a standard rehearsal method. Time together may be spent researching, reporting, discussing, fighting, improvising, dancing, playing games, attempting exercises, presenting prepared scenes. Typical rehearsal room activities like table reads and blocking do usually occur, but not in an organized order or fashion. And many companies alter their method from one project to the next. As the Debate Society’s Thureen explains, “Explicitly we decided that every one of our processes would be created to mirror the work we were creating. We create it in tandem for every single play.”

Radiohole’s Dyer says that the spontaneous nature of their rehearsals often provokes frustration. “It’s not a very efficient process,” he says, “and at times it feels incredibly lost. Sometimes you’re just sitting there thinking, “Why are we doing this?’ Because you end up going up a lot of wrong alleys.” Collins reveals that ERS strategies include re-creating scenes from films, improvising dances, and “pushing around chairs and tables and playing with the space that we’re in”—a tactic that may have resulted in the unusual staging of the bullfight (horned folding tables sub for cattle) in The Select (The Sun Also Rises), which will play New York Theatre Workshop this fall.

No two of these companies are alike, even in their differences, though at least three did cite an off-kilter sense of humor as the quality that distinguishes them. A spectator won’t find much similarity between the Debate Society’s loopy atmospherics, ERS’s swoony literariness, the Civilians’ musical documentaries, Radiohole’s jubilant food fights, NTUSA’s stylized comedies, or Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s blend of the colloquial and the formal.

Despite these individual styles and the years and months spent developing work and the acute attention to process, the results are not always successful. The early works of the Debate Society tended toward the arch; Radiohole has produced several duds including None of It; ERS could not achieve quite the same magic with Faulkner as with Fitzgerald; the recent investigations of the Civilians, while displaying admirable political and social engagement, have perhaps lost some of the giddiness that made their early pieces so pleasurable. And who knows what will become of the 24-hour Life and Times, which has so long a running time and so large a cast it may never be shown in New York.

Yet when critics like myself come to make our end-of-season lists, these companies and those like them often occupy the top spots, quite a small reward to the immense amounts of work that devising these pieces demands. (How they would laugh at Cole Porter’s production model!) But despite the fights and the frustrations and the constant need for day jobs, all the artists—perhaps unsurprisingly—insist that they couldn’t or wouldn’t make theater any other way.

Dyer says that even when tensions in Radiohole were at their highest, he always knew “that I wasn’t going to go off and make the theater of my dreams without my company. I always understood that even if we were screaming at each other, I had no place else to go.” Conversely, NTUSA’s Sherwood particularly enjoys the communal aspects of the devised method. “It’s working with people you really trust and knowing that when you give your idea over to the group it’s very possible that someone will make that idea a lot better.” Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Liska likes the individual freedom it affords himself and Copper. “We’re not responsible to the playwright,” he says. “We’re not responsible to the director, we’re not responsible to some preconceived expectation— all we’re responsible for is the event.”

Though Copper says that they sometimes feel “we’re working way too hard, knocking ourselves out,” neither believes that they will ever return to the more traditional plays with which they began their career. “Ultimately, we came out of the closet,” says Liska. “It was almost like we realized we’re theatrically gay and started to work in a different way. And once you realize you’re gay, you don’t really go back and dabble in heterosexuality.”

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