Five Things Theatre Students Learn from a Devised Work

Michelle Bombe

Aspiring actors and theatre majors should not pass up the chance to work on a devised work. At Hope College, where I serve as professor and Director of Theatre, we have had the fortune of working on four devised works to date. Every single time, I’ve seen our students flourish and grow because of their experience with this type of theatre making.

Devised work refers to theatre that begins without a single playwright and text but is company generated from the ground up. It might begin with a theme, a poem or some kind of visual inspiration and builds through a process. There are many ways to create this kind of work: through improvisation, writing prompts, music, and/or through physical work. Devised pieces usually deal with elements of movement, text, and visual images, and some devisers emphasize one or more of these over another.

Devised works are an extraordinary experience for theater students. Here are five reasons why: 

Students learn they have a voice.

Devised works let students have thoughts, ideas, opinions, and creative impulses they might not ever have been called to stretch.

Working on devised work means they have participated in every aspect of creating the piece of theatre that they will present. This not only creates a strong sense of ownership about the work, but as an artist, it may be the first time they have had some control over the kind of topics and issues they want their art to address. Increasingly our students are interested in the fields of social justice, and devising theatre can be a way to speak to that need.

Students learn to risk.

Knickerbocker Theatre at Hope College

Knickerbocker Theatre at Hope College

We say it in theatre all the time—you must risk to be a theatre artist, but I don't think students always know what that means or even what that experience feels like. When you are creating original work, you must really put yourself out there without a net, so to speak. There is no roadmap: you have to try things, some that work and some that just lead you to different discoveries.

Students learn to trust themselves and others.

Theatre creates a powerful bond between the students involved, and when the play is built together from the ground up, the participants feel not only connected to each other, but meaningfully connected to the story they are telling and the community they are sharing it with. 

The directors of one of our recent devised works gave the students the mantra, "trust the mess," meaning that the process to create this type of work isn't always clean and linear—in fact there are periods in the creation that can be frustrating because it is impossible to see the end product while you are in the midst of creation. But you must trust the process the group is going through will lead to a creative product.

Students learn what kind of work they really want to do.

Many students go into theatre without realizing this was a question that they could ask, so they begin to search out companies that speak to them, either because of the kind of work they are producing or the way that they create the work.

From their devised work experience, many students get "hooked" on the idea that they can create work themselves and want to continue doing that. They create their own company or seek out other companies that do devised theatre, or even take what they have learned into fields like social justice or community activism.

Students become entrepreneurial artists.

The typical path for an actor is to wait for a theatre to produce a play (that may or may not mean anything personally to the actor), wait to audition for that play, and wait to hear if they have been cast. When students learn they have the tools to create theatre themselves, they start to realize that more possibilities are available to them.

Theatre making is always a collaborative process, but an actor is typically limited to what they can bring to a character that someone else has already written. In devised work, the students really start to understand the process of creating theatre—what makes a story engaging, and what gifts can they bring to the table to enhance the work? Perhaps the most important thing students realize, once they have experienced the thrill of creating a piece of theater from the ground up, is that they don't have to wait for opportunities—they have always had the potential to create their own.

Michelle Bombe is a professor and Director of Theatre at Hope College in Holland, Mich.