The Role of Ensemble Theatre in Redefining 'Playwriting' and 'Writing for Performance' in the 21st Century

Lead Research Organisation: University of Kent
Department Name: Sch of Arts


British plays and playwrights have had a profound influence on other cultures and their understanding of drama and theatre. Although Shakespeare, Wilde and Shaw continue to grace the repertoires of theatres around the world, Edward Bond and Sarah Kane's more controversial works have also caused a significant impact internationally in the second half of the 20th century. Interestingly, Kane's imagery-rich texts were more readily received and given a more adventurous treatment by Central European directors than they were in the English-speaking world.

In the second half of the 20th century a practice known as 'devising' emerged in the Anglo-American context. The term refers to theatre-making practices which do not have an allocated playwright or a playtext at the centre of the process, but which use text as one of many ingredients in making a performance. Ensembles mixing theatre and dance such as DV8 or theatre and multimedia such as the Wooster Group are known for this method, as are Lecoq-trained Theatre de Complicite and the British performance company Forced Entertainment.

A significant contribution to the development of playwriting as a studio-based rather than study-based activity could be seen to have been made by the director Max Stafford-Clark and his rehearsal-based work with writers which began as part of his ensemble Joint Stock in the 1970s. This is complemented by examples of playwrights who work with ensembles not just as writers but as actors, directors and designers (Steven Berkoff, Howard Barker, Chris Thorpe, Adriano Shaplin). This research project therefore aims to investigate the role of the ensemble way of working in changing the nature - and potentially changing our understanding - of playwriting in the 20th and 21st century. Part of the investigation is also the nature of authorship in theatre and the increasing cross-over between the previously segregated practices of 'playwriting' and 'writing for performance'.

Although some British playwrights have worked with ensembles (David Hare, Caryl Churchill, Howard Barker), and many performers have written plays (Harold Pinter, Carl Grose, Tim Crouch); a perceived dichotomy between playwriting and performance-making as distinct areas of theatre-making activity has persisted in many cultures including the UK.

This research project wishes to recognise the internationally emerging practice of writing which is entirely theatre and performance-oriented (such as the work of Kneehigh Theatre or Tim Crouch in the UK, Adriano Shaplin in the US and the collective of performance poets from Belgium, Ontroerend Goed). This writing is not motivated by meeting any literary standards and does not follow in the footsteps of classical poets. This writing is also not necessarily part of a devising process; it is a kind of dramaturgy which emerges from a kinaesthetic sensibility of a writer/performer (a quality which could also be re-ascribed to the actor/playwright Shakespeare himself).

By collecting and analysing testimonies from contemporary ensemble theatre-makers in Europe and the US, this project ultimately seeks to redress the understanding of playwriting as literature which emerged at the end of the 19th century, and to facilitate a wider understanding of the newly evolving functions of text and performance within contemporary theatre. On an empirical level, the project seeks to investigate the potential place of the playwright and text within an ensemble of theatre makers required to stage it. On an analytical and discursive level, the project will be concerned with various modes of the interplay between written text and live performance in contemporary theatre, with a view to a number of different genealogies which emerged in the 20th century in the Anglo-American context.

This will lead to three types of output: a monograph about Theatre-Making (Palgrave), a collection of interviews (Routledge) and a workshop package for practitioners.

Planned Impact

Even though the project is primarily motivated by a desire to address a conceptual shift in the contemporary understanding of writing in theatre, its purpose is mostly concerned with being able to reach a broad cross-section of scholars, practitioners and interested individuals. In these terms, the project aims to have impact not only on the individuals who might normally be expected to be interested in just playwriting or just performance-making, but precisely to facilitate an encounter between the two.

The research will span theatre-making practices which range from the Royal Shakespeare Company to Tim Crouch and from the Berliner Ensemble to Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Chicago. It is anticipated therefore that all of these subjects (who will contribute their first-hand testimonies to the project) will have a vested interest in it. The Royal Shakespeare Company is celebrating its 50 anniversary this year, and in 2013 the current Artistic Director Michael Boyd will mark the tenth anniversary at the helm of the company. I expect that this occasion will create opportunities for the two volumes to be launched as part of some of the associated celebrations (especially as my prior association with the company might make it possible to facilitate this).

In addition to potential book launches, I would expect that some aspects of the project might be able to raise some interest from the media - especially as this way of thinking about writing and theatre-making is seen as innovative by a lot of the readers who have commented on the book proposals. I am also confident that as a former journalist and theatre spokesperson, I will be able to communicate the main purposes of this project in a way which is palatable for the general public.

Finally, the workshop package, which will feature workshops on collaborative ways of working (as well as more specifically the role of writing within the process of collaborative theatre-making) will be transferrable to a lot of different kinds of environments - including both corporate and educational settings. Once again my previous experience of working in the theatre industry with a similar brief will inevitably help in this respect.


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Description Key findings of the research project are:
- the theory and practice of theatre-making in teh 21st century can be re-positioned beyond the previously held binaries between the text-based and devised theatre, and theatre and live art;
- the 21st century understanding of playwriting focuses on kinaesthetic, designerly and/or musical aspects of dramaturgy rather than necessarily its literariness;
- the 21st century theatre-making practices are increasingly concerned with a democratisation of the creative process and performance itself.
Additional key findings have been published here:
Exploitation Route This question is well addressed by the follow-om project The Mums and Babies' Ensemble also funded by the AHRC and featuring the outcome The Mums and Babies' Ensemble: A Manual. This was an example of 21st century theatre-making as applied to a particular target group.
Sectors Creative Economy,Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description On 1st February 2017 at a public event at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, the Artistic Director of Lyric Hammersmith, Sean Holmes has referred to the book The Contemporary Ensemble as encapsulating his own experience of running an ensemble. This book had been The Stage Newspaper's pick of the week in 2013 as well as the newspaper's pick of the year 2013. I have published several articles in the Exeunt Magazine referring to the research in my two books Theatre-Making and The Contemporary Ensemble, most notably, which has been circulated widely via the social media and republished by the Bruntwood Prize website for a fee. My book Theatre-Making is a popular teaching resource at university drama and theatre studies departments.
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description AHRC Follow On funding The Mums and Babies Ensemble
Amount £11,711 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/M009084/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2015 
End 10/2015
Description Devising as a Historical Category 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners

20 - 21. APRIL 2012 PRAGUE
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
Description Dramaturgies of Togetherness 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Conference paper delivered at Play: Relational Aspects of Dramaturgy conference in Ghent, 15-16 March, 2012
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
Description Duska's Salon 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Public discussion with distinguished theatre-makers Mike Alfreds and Joey Holden to launch the book The Contemporary Ensemble.

This event was part of the Lifting the Curtain series, funded by the AHRC - more detail here:
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
Description The Ensemble Way of Working and Playwriting 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Conference paper given at the ___

Turning the Page: Creating New Writing Conference 1945-2013

organised by

University of Reading and the Victoria & Albert Museum Friday 13th to Saturday 14th September 2013

at the University of Reading

Turning the Page: Creating New Writing (1945-2013)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
Description Theatre-Making: Bridging the Gap Between Text-Based and Devised Theatre in the English-Speaking World 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Conference paper given at the International Federation for Theatre Research Conference in Barcelona, 22-27 July 2013
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013