The New Commedia: Structure and Process
As I present my latest original play, I think that perhaps I haven’t done a solid enough job outlining just what The New Commedia does and the process we’ve been working to refine over the past few years.
I started the company in 2015, just before I moved back down to Brighton with the goal of creating original, local-made works of theatre through a devising process. Devised theatre is a type of theatre that relies on the collective efforts of the group to create and develop the script through any combination of collaborative exercises like improv or storytelling games.
I believe 100% in the process of creating art “from scratch” because it inevitably captures this very raw sense of timeliness as it pulls from the group at hand and where this group of people is at this moment. It is, for me, the essence of the fleeting nature of theatre. It happens because these people in this moment needed to explore that idea.
The goal is that the artists on hand are connected enough to their communities that the topics and issues they’re exploring on stage are relevant and reflective to their communities. Otherwise, it becomes an echo chamber of artist self-indulgence. Art must be for the community in which it exists.
In creating this company, I realized that I and the people I work are exceptionally busy human beings. I believed that the process of creation could happen in a week and so as a way to attract people to work with me, all I have to ask for is a week and some change.
We start each production with an ideation meeting a few months out. The purpose of this meeting is to discuss what ideas or concepts are particularly engaging to the group at the time. The conversation is casual and fairly unstructured. By the end of the meeting, we will have discovered our central idea we’d like to explore.
Once we’ve selected our topic, we go our separate ways for awhile with the task of collecting and researching any and all real life examples of our topic. News stories, novels, photographs, music, anything that might spark a path for us. We then come back together and sort through all of these references in search of recurring images. I work with images at this stage because it starts to help the conceptual become concrete. Images also give us a visual guide in which to start working our theatrical conventions.
I feel like here might be a good place for an example.
The first show I worked through this process was called Default. Nick Holland and I had our first meeting and we both realized very quickly that our shared concern at the moment was on the topic of student loans. We talked of the cyclical nature of being debt and the overwhelming feeling of constantly being behind. From there we searched for imagery related to the topic and out of a spark of happenstance we likened it to a circuit that just keeps repeating.
The image of the circuit gave us the construct for the play, which was that there would be two guys who worked inside of a circuit. They were there to pay off their debt and they had to find meaning to their existence. Hefty topic, but you can find humor in just about anything.
Once we settle into a simple structure for the play, we start to draft a script. In this “modern world” of technology the beauty of this step is that through tools like Google Docs, productive and specific conversations can happen at any time any where. The electronic version of the script is full of comments and discussions back and forth about plot points and needs to round things out.
This step has also looked vastly different each time I’ve done it. For some shows, the script is a very loose plot outline; know where you need to get to and if you happen to hit a few of the better lines we wrote, all the better. Other shows have been a full on script; follow it because you the plot will fall apart if you skip something.
Once we have the script, we start the rehearsal process. This is the second step that has looked different each time. We move into a place on a Monday and by Friday we present what we’ve come up with. I’ve seen whole sections of scripts be thrown out after the Monday night rehearsal because we realized it wasn’t going to work when we heard it out loud. Monday is usually reserved for read throughs and script revisions. Tuesdays we then come back with any changes to script and we put it on its feet. Usually, this is where the script shifts again and more revisions are made.
Wednesday and Thursday are usually that anxiety riddled period of the rehearsal process most shows go through during tech week. The scary part of this is that we open two days later. The nice part is that we only have to sit in that anxiety for two days. These rehearsals are usually just about running and refining. This is where as we work through the full arc of a show, we see the little moments and subtle touches we can add to give the show a rich world. It varies for each show and is dependent on the script.
The tip I would throw out here, if you plan on trying this model, is to make your characters specific and the world of the play vague. People connect to people and so audiences want to like or dislike the characters. The world of the play, because you only have a week, should be vague so as to not sit too long in the plot holes. Let the audience do some of the work and build the world the way they see fit.
Friday and Saturday are performances. Performances for us is a loose term. We do a ticketing process we’ve called “Give Us Your Two Cents” where in because we can’t market a show that hasn’t been made yet, we only ask our audiences to just give us their time. Then after the show they have two choices. They can buy a ticket at whatever price they thought the show was worth OR if they didn’t think the show was worth their time, we just ask for them to give us feedback on a designated space on our programs.
Up to this point, audiences have been pretty receptive to this process and it has made for richer conversations about what theatre is and can be. It is amazing to see how the relevant themes we explore on stage so effortlessly resonate with our audiences. They get it and they like to be part of it.
It is a type of theatre that does not focus on the product at the end. It’s not about a polished piece of theatre that feels uneditable or unable to be criticised because of all the “hard work” performers put into it. It is raw and doing what art should be doing, opening up community dialogue.