Creating new content at UTM’s Theatre Erindale
Zoë Bonk, a Theatre and Drama Studies third-year, speaks about the ins and outs of devised theatre.
As I sat in the dark studio of Theatre Erindale, a glowing hand emerged from the curtains and proceeded to instruct the audience on how to repair a squeaky shoe. In the hour that followed, an ogre ate a giant pie, puppets went on dates, and the ensemble serenaded the crowd while simultaneously flipping the audience off. From start to finish, the third-year 2023 Devised Project allowed creativity to rule over logic in the most entertaining way possible.
All this irreverent fun was born from the concept of devised theatre, a collaborative style of theatre that relies on the contributions of its creative team for theme and direction. Each year, the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) Theatre and Drama Studies (TDS) third-year students use this method to write, produce, and perform their own original shows. So, what does it take to turn a concept into a full-blown production? To answer this question, I spoke with cast member and TDS third-year, Zoë Bonk.
“The difference between a typical show’s rehearsal process and the devised process is that you’re actually creating the work as you go along—so you’re starting from scratch,” she explained.
This year, under the guidance of director Brian Postalian, the cast engaged in a series of exploratory activities united by the theme of “A Thousand Meanings.” Through short, improvised scenes, each actor explored how different gestures, movements, lighting, and props could open new interpretive spaces and serve as building blocks for larger segments. “It helped that we had rehearsals every single day, so we could always come back with something new and think about what we had done and what we wanted to pursue,” said Bonk.
By refining ideas, the third-year actors had an exercise in collaboration—creating cohesive segments from many perspectives. “Relatively early on in the process, after we had done some exploration work, we were asked one day as our homework to come in with a proposal,” Bonk recalled. “[We prepared] something we wanted to explore—a sequence, a skit, a sketch—something that we wanted to take a look at.”
According to Bonk, her cast mates brought many ideas and props to the table. Kaleigh Croft brought a lit-up umbrella and a twisted fairy-tale. Meaghan Dias and Sean Lee each played with the effects of repetition and intonation, while a tense beachfront scene came from Allie Waddel and Mia Pagliaroli.
Postalian then helped the cast to apply the Critical Response Process—a method used by theatre artists when receiving and providing feedback. By asking questions and exploring their content in precise details, Bonk said that they would collectively “come up with what [they] had really responded to.” Some sketches went through up to four versions—led by various cast members—before reaching their final form. “A devised piece is constantly evolving, but that too was a group process,” Bonk added.
When it came time to figure out an order for these seemingly disjointed pieces, a sequence emerged from the pace and feeling of each individual skit. Bonk stated that “some things kind of felt natural.” She pointed to the entire cast’s involvement in the opening scene as a crucial factor for its placement in the play’s timeline and explained that Croft’s lighted umbrella scene became the play’s emotional climax. To fill in the middle, a whiteboard and some sticky notes were in order.
“We actually had a portion of rehearsal where we sat down for a good half an hour and we were just like, ‘Okay, where do we feel like this piece goes?’ And we all offered our opinions and our reasoning behind it to create this timeline together,” said Bonk. The result was an arrangement of sketches, motifs, and variations on the project’s central theme that was as captivating as they were unpredictable.
So, after seeing the Devised Project go from conception to performance, what stands out about the devising process? Bonk credits the exploration and collaboration inherent in the method as her major takeaways.
“This isn’t a story we’re telling, really, it’s a show with a thousand different meanings where the audience is going to come up with their own way of feeling about it,” said Bonk.
Many called this year’s Devised Project performance a stand-out year. “To have the audience respond so warmly and so positively to something that you and some of your closest friends have collaborated on, and really poured your heart and soul into, it’s an incredible feeling, and it’s such a gift,” Bonk concluded.
Even though devising a show takes much trial and error, the outcome is a rewarding piece of collective art. While the next Devised Project lies with the minds of next year’s TDS third-year students, be sure to venture to Theatre Erindale for their current main stage production, Alcestis. Tickets can be found at www.tickets.sheridancollege.ca.