Is Scriptwriting Dead to Devised Theatre?

Scriptwriting can be said to be the antithesis of devised theatre. While scriptwriting places a writer as the chief storyteller, devised theatre aims to create collaborative works that are built on inputs from the entire creative team. In other words, the actors, director, set designers and so on become storytellers, rendering the term ‘scriptwriter’, at its most extreme, as the person who literally writes (or transcribes), the script.

Devised theatre is in vogue nowadays. But that does not mean that traditional scriptwriting is irrelevant to devised theatre. On the contrary, non-writers can benefit more from learning about scriptwriting than they would have once. What makes a story tick? What are the key elements in a story? What are the things you should watch out for when creating a story? All these are just as relevant in the devising process as it is in traditional scriptwriting.

The Art of Short Scripts students reading their scripts/stories during public showcase. Sep 2016.

The Art of Short Scripts students reading their scripts/stories during public showcase. Sep 2016.

In 2016, HCAC held courses on scriptwriting (‘The Art of Short Scripts’, taught by Sarah Howell). The courses saw both actors and writers turning up to write 10-minute plays. As a participant myself, I found that the process of seeking inspiration, researching and sharing was similar to other modes of storytelling, including devised works. As course participant Anvita Gupta shared, “The most valuable lesson [is] to write [or use] whatever you have in your mind without overtly analysing it. Once you’re done, if it lacks cohesion, you either add or subtract, within the layout of the story you want to tell…It’s important to understand what you want to convey.”

Storytelling is storytelling, regardless of whether it is told by one person or many, whether it is fixed or improvised. All storytellers cater to an audience and that in itself binds the storyteller within a certain framework. All stories need a beginning, middle and an end, without which an audience would probably not be able to understand what you’re trying to say. Some ideas may seem promising at the start, but may peter out as you try to expand upon them. Characters need to be consistent; they need to have motivation for doing what they’re doing. Getting yourself trained in scriptwriting will make you more aware of these things. In fact, the only thing that makes scriptwriting different (and possibly daunting) is its rigid and intimidating form, as shared by course participant Tanvi Kothary, “[Scriptwriting] is not as complex as I thought…I was so focussed on the format.” Like all rules, once you know it, it ceases to be an obstacle.

Spoken Word Students Showcase @ DESTINATION INK. Oct 2016. Credit: Striking Pixels

Spoken Word Students Showcase @ DESTINATION INK. Oct 2016.
Credit: Striking Pixels

That is not to say that scriptwriting is more difficult than devised works. As a writer, you can work alone, doing away with the possibility of having too many cooks spoil the broth. Working alone also lets you go with the flow of your own story, uninterrupted. But as I observed in another post, people can help you in your scriptwriting endeavours as well. Devised theatre itself comes with its own set of challenges that traditional scriptwriters rarely have to face. The focus on generative techniques of performance, ranging from physical theatre to dance, multimedia and so on, and the interactions between these lead to an immense array of possibilities that the co-creators have to decide on. Working in a group also means that you will have cases where not all co-creators are aligned in their vision for the performance, especially if the group is working together for the first time.

One Act Play students in the workshop preparing for public showcase. Feb 2017.

One Act Play students in the workshop preparing for public showcase. Feb 2017.

If we are to take scriptwriting to be about storytelling, then devised theatre too aims to tell a story. Traditional theatre is about the primacy of the scriptwriter; the entire performance grows out from a script. But there is no rule in scriptwriting that there can only be one storyteller. Scriptwriters and co-creators of a devised piece are also quite similar in the way they tell their stories. Both use improvisation to make a story work, albeit the former engaging in a more intellectual means of improvisation than the latter. Consider too that most devised works end up having a script of some sort transcribed at some point. Yes, the script is created during the rehearsal process rather than before it begins, but we can on this point also observe that pre-written scripts get modified over rehearsals as well. Indeed, what devised theatre does is to move away from the idea of a “chief storyteller” and place all creators as co-storytellers instead, in line with its collaborative ethos. With a number of people involved in the storytelling process, it becomes all the more important to recognise that scriptwriting is not at all dead in devised theatre, and that theatre-makers could do with learning these skills. On that note, I leave you with Anvita Gupta’s advice if you find yourself stuck in your storytelling.

“Don’t be a prude about seeking inspiration from existing work. But don’t be disrespectful and vehemently plagiarise either. Be as safe or go completely crazy. It’s the story you want to tell to the audience you want to show it to.”

Want to practise your storytelling skills? Sign up for HCAC’s latest devised theatre workshop, Devised Theatre: From Stage to Street or watch the students of the sold-out Words of My Body: Devised Theatre Masterclass perform their work on 10 & 11 June 2017, 2pm and 8pm.