A few weeks ago my friend Mark (@echolocated) reached out asking to pick my brain about mapmaking activities for a rehearsal plan built around creating space. He had played a couple different games with me where we made maps together, and he was curious about using those approaches to create a shared world with his ensemble. I was super excited about the prompt because games and theatre both define spaces and I thought there might be some cool interactions between the two. Today we’re going to look at developing maps and shared locations and get into why this is a great tool for devised theatre work.
In shared storytelling, there is a primacy to the question “where are we?” that is easy to take for granted. Peter Brook famously tells us that all we need to create theatre is to have someone walk across an empty space, but I would add that until that empty space is defined and transformed, until that space becomes anything other than the theatre we’re sitting in, we aren’t telling a story. In physical theatre we focus on performing space. We learn that movement is a language that is illegible without space, and honest performance requires understanding the dynamics of where we are.
Mark’s question that he would bring into the rehearsal room was “how do we establish the space of an entire play, not just an individual scene. More than that, can we establish the world not just of the play, but of all the possible plays that we might find ourselves making over the course of a months’ long process?” Well yes, tabletop replied, that’s just called worldbuilding. Anyone from tabletop gaming will tell you that building the world that your game takes place in still leaves plenty of room for the players to tell their own story once the world makes contact with the characters. Worldbuilding gives us key context and potential for the story, but it doesn’t dictate the narrative.
Mapmaking is the part of worldbuilding where we focus on geography and location. In a game, we might also want to build out the types of people and politics in the world; scenarios and crises. For theatre, Mark has a savvy impulse to start with space. In a devising process, we spend a lot of time in murkiness. We don’t know who the characters are going to be, we don’t know what the plot is that happens to them. Sometimes we come into the room with a certain theme or purpose in mind for the theatre, but there’s a lengthy process of improvisation, creation, trial and error to determine what is going to happen onstage to present the theme or idea that we’re pursuing. Making a map is a way to have some solid ground for the ensemble to all agree on in a low-stakes way. Defining location allows us to get specific about the context of our story, and still keeps the possibilities of who the story is about or what happens to them very open. Using games as a way to define and create space together has the added benefit of becoming some of the first concrete proposals of the collaboration. With games we populate a map with all of these places that scenes could happen, but we don’t plan the paths, we discover them through play. In a rehearsal room, this framework can be super freeing and help us avoid some of the pitfalls and sand traps of the devising process.
Often when we start collaborating with people, proposals have a way of morphing, sometimes losing their foundation. It’s a normal rhythm of creativity: one person wants to set a scene in a diner, and the other person asks themselves “how can we make this diner anything besides a diner,” so they walk into the improv as a cop to let everyone know that a murder has been reported and our quaint little diner is going to be commandeered to build a crime scene. An honest and observant ensemble will catch this happening and make sure not to lose sight of the reality of the diner. They will remember that the space has consequence; another person might come on stage with blood-stained hands from chopping meat.
Space and location is the first way that we put creative restrictions on the work we’re making and this helps us move out of “anything is possible” into “this is what happens.” There’s a word for that journey: writing.
A map is so much better than a script for early rehearsals because it gives you a field of possible scenes. It gives you concrete options. If you want to change something about the location, you don’t have to destroy what’s already been established, you can simply make an entirely new location somewhere else on the map. When brainstorming with Mark, I offered the example of my grandparents hometown: a small farming city in central Washington with 300 people and three churches. Narratively that’s just ridiculous. Even if you wanted to make a magnum opus about religious identity in the Northwest you could probably get by with two churches just fine. Reality has a level of redundancy that we just don’t need onstage, but in the early part of our process, this is permission to make everything we need, or every version of what we need. It’s so much more useful to make three specific churches than a location that’s left open enough to be any one of them. During the rehearsal process we can try the locations out and see which one sings. Or we can follow an impulse to see which one our character is drawn to visit.
Once we start to define things in a concrete way, we can begin to find the consequences and chain reactions of our story. We discover creative inconveniences that can push us into new directions. The lovers try to express their undying passion for each other but someone set the scene at a construction site. How will they whisper sweet nothings if they can’t even hear full-throated yells? I don’t know the answer but I’m sure your ensemble can find one that’s interesting.
I’m catching up with Mark this weekend to hear how his mapmaking rehearsal went, so come back for Part 2 where I’ll be talking about exercises in the room and getting under the hood with some specific games.