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Devising Exercises for the Drama Classroom

What is devising?

The hallmarks of a devised theatre piece is that it:

  • does not start with a script, it start with a idea/concept/topic
  • is a collaborative creation
  • there are no traditionally defined roles (playwright, director)
  • the creators are often the performers
  • the process of discovering the final product is as important as the final product itself

All these items make devising exciting and terrifying at the same time. Collaborative creations sound great on paper, but there are issues. The lack of leadership can make a piece muddy and ineffective. Students often reject or shoot down ideas they feel are inferior – this is deadly to the collaborative process. Sometimes students get so wrapped up in their process that the final product ends up meaning more to the performers than to an audience. And it’s much harder to start simply with an idea, concept or inspiration point instead of a completed script.

Having said all that, these are the exact reasons why you should introduce devising into the drama classroom. The act of devising requires that students collaborate. Everyone must be on the same page, and everyone must work together at every step of the process. One individual cannot be left to do all the work – it’s the responsibility of the group as a whole. Being open to ideas and being able to apply constructive feedback is a skill that every student should practice on a regular basis. When you start with a topic or an idea instead of a script, there is room for flexibility and imagination. Students who are strong in visual mediums can participate. Students who can’t write but love to dance can participate. Students who want to write a monologue can participate.

Devising is all encompassing for a wide variety of skills and ability levels. Devising is also an excellent form for cross-curricular projects. Take a topic from another area and use it as the source material to devise scenes. Lastly, there are ways to moderate the process so that the audience is not a forgotten entity. Theatrical experiences do not exist without the engagement of the audience.

How do you get your students to devise effectively?

In order to get the most out of your students, it’s important not to dive head first into a devising project. Introduce the experience in exercise form.

Being open to ideas

It’s natural to reject something we don’t like. It’s a knee jerk reaction. But if students respond with a knee-jerk “NO”, the devising process will quickly become unmanageable. Practice with your students the concept of accepting all ideas. The best way to incorporate openness into the process is to use improv. Improvisation not only forces students to make offers but to accept offers and add on to them. You can’t reject an idea because that’ll derail the scene.

Improv Exercises

  • Yes, and… Students have a conversation in pairs. Give them a topic and after the first sentence, every other sentence has to begin with “Yes, and…” That means you’re accepting the offer given to you and adding on.
  • Yes, Let’s!: Everyone stands in a circle. One person suggests a simple activity. “Let’s go ice skating!” Everyone in the circle yells out “Yes, Let’s!” Everyone joins in on the activity until someone else calls out another activity.
  • Body Pose Pass: Everyone stands in a circle. Person A makes an all body pose. The bigger the better. Person B imitates the pose as closely as possible to the original. Once they do that, they turn to Person C and do their own pose. C imitates the pose as closely as possible to the original. Coach students to move quickly from pose to pose. Don’t think about what you’re going to do, just make an offer. Don’t think about how you’re going to imitate the pose, accept the offer and for for it. Once everyone has gone, repeat the exercise, adding in a sound with the pose.
  • Expert Translation: A talk show scene which features a famous expert on a topic. The expert only speaks gibberish and their translator has to do all the explaining.
  • Change: Two actors start a scene. A third player stands off to the side. The third player calls out “change” at random times. When “change” is called out, the person who just spoke has to come up with a new line. The scene then must carry on fluidly based on this new line until “change” is called out again.
Practice coming with ideas on a topic

Brainstorming is part of the devising process. When you’re starting from scratch, it’s easy to veer off-topic and think you’re doing something great. Practice coming up with ideas on topic. The topic, or the idea, is your starting point. It’s the place your students will spend most of their time. Everyone has to fully connect to the source material and come up with ideas based on the source material. If everyone is on the same page, the brainstorming will go a lot easier.

Idea Exercises

  • Brainstorm Quickfire: Give groups a topic and a time limit. (1 minute) They have to come up with as many ideas as possible within the time limit. Next, give them a 30 second time limit.
  • Objects: This is an improv game. Divide the class into two teams. Each team will go one at a time. In the middle of the room, place an object. One at a time the members of a team will come up and interact with the object in as many different ways as possible. Give the group a 2 minute time limit. Then repeat the exercise with a 1 minute time limit.
  • This is not a chair: Place a chair in the middle of the room. Person A sits on the chair. Person B enters the scene and declares “This is not a chair. It’s a ____________.” They then have to interact with the “chair” in whatever way they’ve stated. Person A has to go along with this with full commitment. After a short interaction, Person A comes up with a reason to leave the scene. Person C enters the scene and declares “This is not a _________. It’s a ______________.” and the process is repeated.
  • 100 questions: Give students a topic. They have five minutes to ask 100 questions about the topic. Tell the groups they will receive a mark for the exercise only if they come up with 100 unique questions. (You want to push them to continually come up with questions and not just give up at 30 or 40.)
Practice working in different forms

A devised product does not have to look like a traditional play. You don’t have to tell a story with words. It’s a great opportunity to use all available languages: words, music, movement, sound, light, visuals.

Form Exercise

Download this exercise as a PDF at the end of the article.

  • Divide the class into groups and give everyone the same topic: Body Image, Jealousy, Freedom, Friendship, Power, School, Authority, Joy, Fear, Relationships, Family
  • Give students a sheet with a variety of different forms on it: mime, film, melodrama, radio play, Absurd, musical theatre, comedy, drama, soap opera, Shakespeare inspired, Ancient Greek inspired. Use not just theatre forms, but art and dance forms as well – painting, photography, collage, mixed media, ballet, modern dance.
  • Explain to the students that they have to explore the topic using three different forms. One of the forms they use must be unfamiliar to them and out of their comfort zone.
  • The length of their presentation for all three forms is five minutes.
  • The group must include a written explanation for why they chose the forms, which one was out of their comfort zone and why, and what was it like to explore a topic in a variety of ways.
  • A rubric for this exercise is include in the PDF download.
Practice working with change

One of the biggest missteps with a devised piece is to set scenes in stone in the early stages. To devise effectively is to accept change and to explore change. Look at scenes and situations from different angles.

Change Exercise

  • Divide students into groups. Give each group a classic children’s game: tag, tug of war, hide and go seek.
  • All of the games should be familiar to your students. You may even want to play each game so that everyone is on the same page with the traditional way they are played.
  • Each group must change the rules of the game. What is the objective of the new version? What is the outcome? What are the new rules? How is the game played?
  • Each group must teach the new version of the game to the class.
  • The class plays the game.
  • Discuss with students afterward, what was it like to change games? Was it hard to accept the new rules? Why or why not?
A couple of final points
  • Do not throw structure out the window. Structure in a devising project is key. Just because there isn’t a director, per se, or a written script doesn’t mean that devising is a free for all. Give yourself a timeline – when is the show? When is the first run through? Know how much time you have to play and when the piece needs to start finding shape.
  • Do not forget the audience. Because devising is such a process driven experience, it’s easy for everything to become performer centred rather than audience centered. Never forget that every theatrical experience depends on the engagement of the audience. Each group should ask themselves: What is my audience getting out of this? What effect do we want to have on the audience? Why should an audience watch this?
  • Do not fear failure. When you start a piece from scratch, you’re starting with the unknown. It’s a much different experience than having a proven entity like a published script. And with the unknown, anything can happen – including failure. Students have such a fear of failure and with good reason. They are told on a regular basis if they fail at a test, essay, or assignment there are consequences. Encourage failure in the devising process. Get students to try out an idea on it’s feet and see what happens. The more they try, fail and try again, the closer they will get to an amazing final product.
Click here for a PDF download of the Form Exercise, with an assessment rubric!
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