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Collaboration and Creating New Theater

At the Brooklyn Arts Exchange Teen Arts Conference 2014 

Facilitated by Elisa Matula and Jennifer Sargent


Drawing inspiration from Vagabond Inventions' unique practices, this workshop will explore absurd physical theater and the collaborative devising process. Participants will discover the worlds of the anti-hero and the profane clown, referencing Alfred Jarry's classic King Ubu. Exercises will explore the clown state, grotesque movement, character creation, physical approaches to Jarry's text, and inventing new material through improvisation. Participants will work as an ensemble to create original scenes inspired by Ubu's world and will engage in a process of giving peer feedback and revising their work as group.


on the process of working with a writer

      in Ensemble-Devised Theater

Watch video of

our work HERE


Vagabond Inventions creates devised physical theater. The company’s team of performer-creators builds a work from intuitive movement- and image-based processes. VI believes that ensemble-devised performance work that grows from the personal investment of a team of creators offers vital possibilities for new, contemporary theater that reflects urgent narratives and ideas in our communities and society. For all the innovative work that a team of performer-creators can generate, the company has found there is often a weakness in the craft of language and story – which speaks to the need for writers to be an integrated part of creative development. However, collaborating with a writer in the haphazard give-and-take of a devising process can be challenging. There can be a natural and profound difference of process between physical theater devisors and writers who often come from a background of working autonomously.


For many years, Vagabond Inventions’ ensemble members have craved models for a fruitful collaboration with writers working in devised theater. The Network of Ensemble Theaters provided our company with an opportunity to experiment with this relationship – to collaborate with Chicago-based playwright and television writer Zina Camblin. Zina’s varied experience includes having her plays produced in traditional theater, writing for devised theater with Tectonic Theater Project, and working as a staff writer for a BET cable TV show. The company collaborated with Zina in a late stage of our show A Kingdom, A Chasm’s development process.


What follows are the transcripts of the company’s conversations reflecting on our process together, guided by questions supplied by other artists working in the field of ensemble-devised performance.. 

What worked?

Jenny (Director/ Instigator): Zina, you were just so experienced. Collaborating in an ensemble setting can be very disorienting if you’re new to it, but your understanding of the process and where we were, how you could fit into it – was right on.


Owen (Performer/ Devisor): The first day - when we stumbled through the mish-mash of all of our incomplete material – I wondered, is this going to be terrifying for you? But it seems like your background in working in a room where we’re all giving feedback and having really quick turn-around was really beneficial. To have you immediately, the next day, have stuff to say (edits, concrete ideas, assignments) - was incredible.


Zina (Co-Writer): It’s always nerve-wracking coming into something you don’t know at all with people you don’t know at all. You have, not just the work, but also you have four different personalities that you don’t know how to negotiate yet. You’re tiptoeing a little at first, until you get a sense of people’s energies. But it felt like a safe space to come in and try things. That’s important on my end. It felt like everybody was open. What was so great, after the first rehearsal, my notepad was covered with my orange pen because you guys had so much great material and meat to work with. It’s not like I came in, and was like, “Oh my god - I’m getting nothing, I don’t care for this piece - I’m in trouble” - because that could happen too. You just never know – taste, all kinds of stuff. I was really impressed with what you’d already built, so I think that was inspiring. It allowed me to build off of that – try to match tone, match the world you’d already created. Which is something that TV writers have to do – we have to match the world, we have to match the tone of the show even though it’s not our show – we didn’t create it, we didn’t create the characters, but that’s our job to match tone and voice, dialogue, characters.


Owen: And with other collaborators.


Jenny: That’s exactly what you did, which was so impressive to me because this piece is so different from your other writing.


Zina: TV writing has also helped me get work done fast, on a deadline. Turning around things fast was really overwhelming for me at first because playwrights don’t have to turn around things that fast. Like when you’re on set and this whole scene needs to be changed – and there’s millions of dollars worth of camera equipment and actors waiting. And you just have to crank it out.


Owen: It was really exhilarating to have so much progress in such a short amount of time.


Lisa (Performer/ Devisor): But I do feel like everything we built up prior to your coming in was really important, too. And I think it was at the perfect place to take it to the next stage of development. Like, if we didn’t have enough made… or if we’d already made decisions that weren’t working and we were frustrated… I feel like it was at a really good spot.

Zina: It was at the perfect spot.

What other strategies contributed to a smooth collaboration?


Jenny: I think sharing the source of the work was really helpful.


Zina: The original passion for the “why.” Why this story. You know, what do you want to say. Where is this coming from?


(The project originally developed as an exploration of the devastating experience of teaching in an anarchic, dysfunctional New Orleans charter school. Both Zina and Jenny were teaching artists together in the same school.)


Jenny: We were both invested in telling that story.


Owen: It seems like finding a writer to which you have some connection to the person, to the writer themselves - not necessarily to their work – would be important to think about. I could see, if I were to look for a writer, I would look at their work and I would imagine how they wrote it, and then select that way -  versus thinking about whether or not I have any commonality with a writer.


Lisa: Though, I do think that works too. As long as expectations are clear before everything starts – being really clear about process and what you want at the end of it. …Zina, how does your practice change when you come write for a movement piece, for this visually-based piece (rather than for TV or more naturalistic theater)?


Zina: There’s definitely a sensitivity, a respect for what’s already there. Matching what’s already there. … Whereas, if I’m working in TV, it’s not as sensitive. There’s something about theater that’s more precious and where people are more sensitive.

Where did you see moments of collaborative devising that moved the work forward?


Lisa: I think when Zina would take some improvised words and put them in the script.


Owen: And moments where Zina gave us a deeper understanding or analysis of our character and then would ask us to work with that in improvs. And that would generate text.


Jenny: When we got to Wednesday (after working for four days); when both Zina and I were on the outside giving directions, it felt like we found an ensemble flow back and forth. Owen and Lisa, you guys had already done a few improvisations of the wrestling – so there was already movement groundwork for that. There was a moment, Owen, when you were improvising Act 3 text. I was gasping; I saw Zina writing furiously. And, you came up with the moment when you said, “Emelda, will you pretend to be my wife?”


Zina: That was the highlight of the whole day. In that one small line, it says so much about everything that’s happened to you.


Owen: But if Zina hadn’t helped us build that backstory, I couldn’t have been in those characters to know that that was the right thing.


Jenny: And the symbolism of the objects – how Zina helped define the symbolism of the saucer. And the fixed point of the saucer allowed that movement improv to have another level of physicality because the struggle had a clearer focus and a direction.


Owen: And from all of that, we did actually get a sequence that was used. Best parts of the text, best parts of the movement.

How did the writer change the way we worked?


Owen: We had to do it all really fast – in like 5 days. That was the most obvious thing.


Jenny: Yes, the speed changed… and the “Yes, And” attitude increased because of the limited time. I think for me, to take advantage of Zina being there, I took a little step back. To be open to whatever emphasis she might see, to see what we could learn from that.


Lisa: You guys would meet before rehearsal?


Zina: After rehearsal. We’d step-out the next act. So, if we’d rehearsed Act 1 that day, we’d talk though the story beats for the next day in Act 2. And then, I would go back and write dialogue for the act before – so Act 1. Then we’d bring Act 2 in, work it out. Come back after rehearsal and say, “Ok, what are the story beats for Act 3?”. Then I wrote dialogue for Act 2.


Lisa: Did you decide the story beats together?


Jenny: Yeah.


Lisa: Was it easy deciding those?


Jenny: I want to say, yes… but -


Zina: There was that one night I was really tired, I think it was an Act 2 night. I was self-conscious, like I’m I saying too much or - “Don’t let me shift your original idea – your baby.” And it didn’t feel like we were on the same page.


Jenny: I was blocked because I was hanging onto these images. And Zina had this idea for structure. And it was like, how can we break/ change the moment so that we get it all? How can we still have those images, but make it fit in to Zina’s structure? Because what I totally saw was that Zina was building the dramatic tension. And I knew you were right, Zina - it has to feel like this. But how to I get the images back in?


Owen: We’ll that’s the two of you and your skill sets and your eyes in the room.


Jenny: Zina and my strengths are exactly complimentary.


Zina: It’s hard to find collaborators who make up for the things that you lack.


Jenny: It also allows the space for, like, ceding decisions. It allows these empty spaces for the other one to fill.


Zina: There’s something about knowing, appreciating the work of the other person, too. Respect for the other artist. It comes down to that.


Jenny: How did we work as a whole ensemble with you guys, Owen and Lisa? How did it feel?


Lisa: I guess I felt since it’s limited time, I was ready to just try. Perhaps one of the ways to improve the work for me would be more time – more days spread out.


Owen: I really enjoyed being able to shift focus some. Where before, I felt like I had much more of a responsibility in what the whole play was going to be. And I could shift focus and be more focused on the performer – but still validated in what my impulses or ideas were. …It would be nice, also, if we worked for a week and then Zina came back and looked at small ways the language had been changed or our movement and our characters. You sent us on this direction, Zina, and it would be great if you came back and could advance the language or see if we were going off track. I don’t want you to be done with the process.

What questions were brought up that gave new insight or layers to the work?


(This question was addressed in a meeting after Zina had returned to Chicago)

Owen: There were questions of “why New Orleans?”


Jenny: Lisa, you brought up your feelings about these past shows about New Orleans charter schools or shows that represent Katrina. Shows that represent those subjects in either anecdotal or exploitive ways. And, yeah, about portraying stereotypical roles. Aminisha was uncomfortable with Dudley being portrayed in a servant role. …I wish I had been better at facilitating that moment.


Owen: I think that was a difficult confrontation moment that was good to have happened.


Jenny: It might have been hard because the team was so new. Zina had just come in the room. Aminisha had just come in the room.


Owen: I also felt because we needed to work so fast and it needed to be a very “yes, and” process… it was hard to tell when the appropriate time for answering or having some of these harder questions was. Sometimes they were brought up right at the end of rehearsal or right at the beginning. I was like, “Do we talk about these things now?” It felt scary because maybe it would derail things - because we haven’t really talked about it a lot.

What would you change about the process?

Lisa: I think if things had worked out where we could have done a workshop kind of thing the first day with everybody, even a short one, that would have helped that tension. At lease we’d be able to use the same words.


(The team had tried to organize a workshop around systemic oppression and racism on the first day of work with Zina, but it ultimately wasn’t able to happen.)


Owen: That’s what I was thinking about with the workshop – then we’d have a shared language. At least we would feel really comfortable asking each other questions and asking each other to explain our thoughts.


Jenny: Yeah… to have created a way of talking about deeper and uncomfortable things.


Lisa: There was things that I – because we were rushing and because I didn’t know Zina’s background too much – I didn’t bring some thoughts up. Like the idea of the second line, I didn’t feel I could voice as a “blocking concern”.


(New Orleans' second line parades are rituals that come from brass band parade traditions in city's African American communities.) 

Jenny: I had a similar moment.


Lisa: Zina may have a different aesthetic where she’s pushing the stereotypes - maybe, I don’t know. But we’re all saying “Yes, and; Yes, and” – maybe that aesthetic has come in. But because we were rushed and we didn’t have that conversation, I feel there was a little bit lost.


Jenny: Lost by not talking through those choices. And maybe clarifying what we want them to be.


Lisa: But the second line didn’t make it in, after all.


Owen: When the Otis monologue was introduced, I remember thinking about how Aminisha, very directly, was like, “Why does he have to be a servant character?” And then there was a monologue where (the African-American character) Dudley had to embody a servant character. There was this moment where I wondered, “Why does there have to be this embodiment of servitude? Maybe this is a risky thing that should happen that will push us further in some way.”


Lisa: I just said to myself, well, we have to show the oppression somehow. So, I was thinking, this is how we’re showing it. But now I don’t know if that came through (in our work-in-progress showing).


Jenny: And that’s what worries me, actually, because I do think that might be Zina’s form. That was what she was doing in her play (Bunni and Clyde) that I read. And in And Her Hair Went With Her – that play came from how she got type cast in Hollywood; it was about stereotypes. That might be her world: putting stereotypes there and making them uncomfortable for us to watch… pushing those buttons in order to –


Lisa: - have a breakthrough.


Jenny:  - or illuminate what we see and what we assume all the time. But yet I feel like - in less experienced hands… if I’m not used to working with stereotypes in that way so that they function in a certain way, then I feel there’s a real disservice. So, I felt like, “Shit, do I understand that language well enough to use it in a way where it doesn’t function in reinforcing it? But instead in a more provocative way?” And I’m not sure… I don’t know. It will be challenging not to have Zina there going forward – to help us work with that language.

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