Posted by: stelladuffy | April 11, 2009

Story Will Show Itself

Have been emailing a young director with some ideas about devising/making new work (and specifically, new work based on real people), and thought it might be something to share here for those of you who care about the writing stuff.

While it’s a conversation about making theatre work, I think it’s almost entirely the same for making book/story work. What’s odd about this is realising that what I’ve emailed her is based on my past 26 years of making theatre (comedy/impro/’proper’ plays) that slowly evolved into mainly novel and theatre writing, but (for me) there are massive links, and also a firm belief running under that Story Will Show Itself – if we let it! (and yes, of course, all this is just thought and ideas, and very hard sometimes to translate to the desk, the room, the space – but nothing wrong with thinking high, right?) :

In my experience devising/making work is a much happier and more productive process all round with more time – not necessarily weeks and weeks of working full time (though that might be nice!), but TIME IN-BETWEEN, time to go away and let it mull/develop/ferment, come back and re-appraise, do the same again etc etc. Last year we showed a new work, Precious Things, with Shaky Isles (NZ company in London), that was a half hour (not finished, but certainly interesting enough to show), devised piece, made in 4 lots of two/three days over about six weeks – I really think we were helped as much by the gaps between rehearsals as the rehearsals themselves. Any time to work is great, but sometimes the time you’re officially ‘not working’ is equally useful. (Especially with making work, when you spend time together, get to know each other, get to know your rhythms/physicality – even if you don’t have a full/complete story, you’ll at the very least look and feel like a company, and that so helps the audience to trust us.)

When using loads of source material it can be easy to get bogged down in the content. If you spend some of the early time with the actors in finding out who you all are as a company (even if you think you already know each other, each new incarnation, as a new company working on a new project, is a new thing), spend some of that time finding what might be the physicality/feeling of this company, then you’ll likely find it pays great dividends later – even when making work from ‘truth’, what really matters is how you all work together, and the understanding that creates with the audience.

Another thing about using true/real/factual material : I try to ask not what do I want the audience/reader to know, but what I’d like them to FEEL. If I keep remembering that, then I get less screwed up about getting it ‘right’, and more free to let it be what it is – whatever that will be. (Having just finished my first historical novel I now feel very strongly that what is created/made up, is easily as important as what we know to be ‘fact’, especially when we’re trying to engage an audience /reader- AND truth is always utterly subjective anyway.)

Speaking of which, I wouldn’t agonise too early about what the story is (here comes the esoteric/weird bit) : if you let it, the story will show itself. Every piece of work is a new work. Every coming together of a group of people is a new company. You can no more determine before you begin rehearsing what the story REALLY is, than you can say now, how one of the actors will work with another on your last night of showing. And the more open you are about knowing you don’t know, the more freedom you allow yourselves (all of you, together) to FIND the story, and let it breathe, work through you. There are so many stories out there (in here, she says pointing to her heart/solar plexus), we just need to make space to let them in. And it’s easier to allow that space if you haven’t already made all your decisions before you begin.

I’m speaking about made/devised work here, but I have a feeling this is also, to some degree, true of playwright-written material. That while the writer makes a piece, when they give it over to a company, it inevitably changes and becomes a new piece, and it’s the giving over – and generous receiving! – which allows that. As an occasional playwright I’d always stand up for the writer’s rights to ‘own’ their work, (and also point out that it’s almost always the writer who gets the bad reviews when something goes wrong, not the director or the cast, especially when the reviewers can’t know how much has been added/removed in rehearsal!) BUT, when it works well, when there’s real trust and spirit between a writer who has (already) made a piece of work and a company who are now taking it on, then what can be made, what is ideally made, is a NEW thing, between all of them. And I’m not at all talking about re-writing here! I’m talking about a thing that is true to the writer’s original heart, AND also allows every other member of the company to engage with that and make it their own. And no, I don’t believe this is always easy, and no, I don’t believe it often happens either, but we might as well aim for the ideal!

I actually wonder if this is maybe why so many companies seem scared to work with writers (and vice versa), and/or feel safer with dead writers – because we aren’t very skilled in this sharing, and so we’d rather not try. There are loads of good reasons to make/devise work, but the truth is it’s also EASIER to devise/make if you don’t know how to, or don’t want to try to, attempt the often more fraught (emotionally) act of working with a writer.

And while we’re here, I far prefer the term ‘make’ to ‘devise’, not entirely sure why, it’s a primarily semantic discussion, but I think I care about it! It sounds freer to me. Less mechanical. More open to more people. And less thesis-ed up!! But knowing most people know the word devise, I feel the need to still say make/devise. (Kind of like using Aotearoa/New Zealand – using the word you prefer, and also wanting the person you’re talking to to know what/where you mean!)

“We’re making a show”/”We’re devising a piece of theatre” – I know which one sounds more fun to me!


  1. a concept that could be applied to “life”, yes? many of our insights, the answers, the magic, comes from the “in-between” time…

  2. yes stella – thinking always good and thinking out loud usually better***

    some ideas bouncing out of yours…
    + am deeply immersed in my peter brook study at the moment and am thinking one of the (several) radical aspects of his theatre making is his approach of encouraging experimentation and then waiting and watching to see what will emerge ~ story and all. Built in to this is both unhurried – clean even – time and space for what happens to happen as well as the openness of not having a deterministic or objective sense of purpose.
    + this corresponds happily with peter senge’s latest ideas about the importance in the big stuff of suspending the will (not needing to know or make a particular outcome in advance). He also champions in his mix being open-minded ~ the ability to see what is actually there rather than merely our expectations or assumptions of what will find; and being open-hearted ~ coming together in an easy state of not knowing and working together with and from as much not knowing as we can manifest.

    + this suggests to me too that the art and craft of making theatre is much more about letting stuff out than is about forcing something into being – i.e. an emergent rather than a construction process.

    + and then there is guy claxton’s idea about the important of the unconscious mind to creativity, and certainly we know that our first designs will never be as good as the ones we come back to after time with them spent simmering in the back of our minds.

    + have recently heard cicely berry talking about her work with voice and shakespeare and she said that when she is working with non-english speakers she always insists they work on contemporary play by one of their own national writers as well as shakespeare, and that with both it is all about finding the rhythm of the language the writer has written and when that happens the meaning unlocks and shows itself easily. just like we found in our recent performance work using poetry – everything you need is already coded into the sounds and rhythms, the hard work is stripping back the effort and artifice in expressing them to release and lift this richness free.

    and yes yes yes – if only we could learn to be more thoroughly preoccupied with audience experience over and above out intentions.

    so – my less original magpied thoughts to add to the mix…

    see you shortly
    xxx m

  3. Re the making/devising thing: seems to me that in ‘making’ you’re truly creating, which necessarily includes a large amount of feeling, and there can’t be much greater freedom than that; whereas ‘devising’ includes an element of detachment and intellectual forethought which is necessary to the creative process but puts bounds around what you produce and so isn’t necessarily so conducive to feeling… if that makes any sense from a total amateur?

  4. Hi Stella

    Just saw your name whilst following the links from the Writers’ Guild bulletin and as I have been typing your name all day in press releases I felt moved to say hello.

    I am Lucy, Valerie’s friend and main publicity cheese for Havant Literary Festival, at which we are proud to say, you will be our Writer in Residence in September. (Don’t know why I just told you that; chances are you already knew.)

    Having just read this excellent post I am keeling over with longing as, much though I love the Festival and all it achieves, it has swallowed me whole this spring and I am missing that precious ‘time inbetween’ that no writer can survive without, and which you describe so well.
    Having no time to mooch and dream and mull is akin to sleep deprivation in my case, and I suspect the same goes for most writers across all disciplines.

    And then you make me swoon even more by talking so eloquently about the collaborative process which again, I am having no chance to experience at the moment and which I miss keenly.

    Whinge over, and that’s quite enough self-indulgence – I’ll start complaining about people who used my comedy material and never paid me next.

    Back to the press releases and looking forward to meeting you in the autumn!

    Lucy (Flannery)

  5. hi Lucy, glad the link brought you here so quickly! veyr much looking forward to Havant, and very happy to talk about story/gaps/time and all the other writing joys/moans when we meet!

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