Devised theater can raise questions that traditional theater rarely has to face.
For instance: There is no question that Henrik Ibsen is the author of Hedda Gabler. Nor is there any dispute that Michael Kahn gets the final say on creative decisions. But when a group of people get together to make a new show, who is the author? If creative disputes arise and deadlines loom, who makes the decisions that will move the process forward?
To help answer those questions, some theater artists look to what’s called the Continuum of Collaboration. The continuum is taught by Michael Rohd, founding artistic director of Sojourn Theater, author of the book Theatre for Community, Conflict, and Dialogue, and faculty member at Northwestern University. Rohd has taught workshops in D.C., and he directed Full Circle at Woolly Mammoth in 2009. He will return to D.C. to teach two workshops at Georgetown University this July, one geared toward theater professionals and another toward a cross-section of artistic and civic disciplines.
The continuum is basically a fluid spectrum of possible choices theater companies can make about how they will collaborate. On one end there is hierarchy; on the other, consensus. In the middle is democracy. Rohd originally encountered the concept while working with Cornerstone Theater Company in Los Angeles, and went on to develop and teach it. Though Rohd admits that it’s “not a super complicated idea,” putting it into practice can be just that.
“When you talk about collaborative authoring,” says Rohd, “that’s when people’s different understanding of what collaboration means can come into tension.” He says the Continuum of Collaboration can be “useful with regards to two specific actions; one is, how does the leadership happen in the room when we’re working together? And then the second is how does authorship occur?”
The continuum is a tool to help an ensemble “communicate about your wants, your needs, the goals for the project, the skill sets that people bring in the room, and all the factors that are influencing how leadership might function and how authorship might occur,” Rohd says. It is a process which “requires a lot of intentionality, patience, and clarity amidst the collaborators.”
This summer, D.C. audiences have a lot of opportunities to see ensemble-based devised productions on local stages. Last week Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle Series hosted force/collision’s latest work, Trust Me. The ongoing Source Festival includes a series of Artistic Blind Dates, which combine artists from different disciplines and task them with creating an original work. In July. Forum Theatre’s season finale is a world premiere called The T Party, devised by Natsu Onada Power and the Forum ensemble. And then there’s the Capital Fringe Festival. Executive Director Julianne Brienza estimates that 15 to 20 percent of this year’s Fringe shows are devised, and that’s not counting commedia or strait-up improv. At Fringe, Pointless Theatre will return with another ensemble-created puppet show, Mark Twain’s Riverboat Extravaganza, and devised-theater troupe dog and pony dc will return with the latest incarnation of A Killing Game.
It was dog and pony dc ringleader Rachel Grossman who introduced me to the idea of the Continuum of Collaboration. Mentioned on a number of occasions by other theater makers, the idea is slowly permeating the D.C. theater community.
Having closely observed the dog and pony dc creative process, I discussed with Rohd how the continuum can bring efficiency to the process of devising a new work with a cash-strapped ensemble on a deadline, and he says it can help strike a balance between efficiency and creative exploration. “I think that a hierarchical form of decision making, for the most part, moves quicker,” he says. “But you also sort of have to decide—-what is the relationship between efficiency and investment? And what is the relationship between investment and quality? I think that those relationships are unique to every situation.”
Michael Rohd teaches two workshops from July 15 to July 21 at Georgetown University.