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The Green Room: What do you think of devised theatre?

Sally Cookson, who directed Peter Pan at the National Theatre, is renowned for using devising techniques to create theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…​​​​​​

Gary Abblett is a 38-year-old jobbing actor with experience at the National, Royal Shakespeare Company, in the West End and on tour

Ros Clifford, 30, is currently a deputy stage manager, she has worked extensively in London and regional theatre for nine years

Adam Lovett, 45, has appeared in Oscar-winning films, on TV and in theatre at the RSC, National Theatre, and the West End

Beryl Phoenix is in her 40s. She has played leading roles at the RSC, worked on new plays, and toured nationally and internationally

Peter Quince, 72, works in theatre and television

Keith Simpson is an actor in his early 20s. Since graduating from drama school in 2016 he has worked on national tours and in rep

Jenny Talbot is 39 and has 20 years of experience in West End and touring musical theatre with occasional forays into TV, film and plays

Annie Walker is 25. Since graduating from drama school, she has worked predominantly in regional theatres and is also a writer and street performer


Beryl I like devised theatre, although there is a lot of it about where the company doesn’t get the credit for ‘making’ the work.

Peter It can be very good – and stimulating for the actor. I’ve heard of directors who then ask for royalties for the actors – which is only fair.

Jon Yes, we’re being topical here, with the current debate over royalties for creators.

Adam Like all theatre, it depends whether it’s good. I don’t have a view on the genre per se. Good ones are great and bad ones are awful.

Gary Isn’t all theatre devised? I like plays. I think there’s something exciting about individual authorial voices. But if I can’t tell that it has been ‘devised’ that’s fine too.

Beryl Some of the best political theatre is born of devising, from what I can tell.

Annie I think it can be great fun. You just need a visionary director who can pull all the crazy ideas into something coherent.

Peter It must be nice to feel you own the piece. But harder for the actor who then has to play the role in future.

Annie But by that point is there not a script? For the next actor to play it?

Adam Abigail’s Party was devised – but now it’s an established play that has been revived successfully many times.

Annie Exactly.

Adam I know of one film director who works almost exclusively on devised stuff, but always lists himself as the writer, which is a bloody cheek. So no one gets royalties except him.

Jon It’s interesting that people are coming to this topic from different directions: some from inside the process, some from the audience.

Annie I like working from text because I like figuring out exactly why each word was chosen by the writer. Devising is more playful – you have a chance to go mad with it, which I love.

Adam I’ve never devised a play. I have nothing but admiration for those who are gifted at the skill. Some of my best nights in the theatre have come from watching Complicite.

Peter It’s a skill that some actors have and others don’t, though some people surprise themselves.

Adam Some actors, like that infuriatingly talented bastard Tim McMullan, are brilliant at both. He’s devised for years amazingly, and then he’s also superb on text.

Keith I love devised theatre. Like most theatre, it can be very hit-and-miss, but when it hits it’s exhilarating. There’s also a greater sense of investment when you are in a production that you have devised collectively. And I love the fact that devised productions tend to have a ‘fuck it’ element – they don’t play it safe.

Annie I love that too – it’s completely freeing.

‘When people make a show with Sally Cookson, they get a percentage of future profits. This should happen more often’

Adam Aren’t a lot of Sally Cookson’s productions devised? And then a script is compiled at the end of it so it can be revived at other theatres.

Annie Yes, I was thinking of Sally: her version of Peter Pan was at the National, and A Monster Calls is running at London’s Old Vic.

Beryl She has a great ethos, from what I’ve heard. When a company makes a show with her, its members all get a percentage of future profits from the production. This should definitely happen more often, if not all the time.

Jon The Equity motion that was passed at the representative conference this year was based on the proposer’s experience of receiving royalties from Cookson productions.

Adam That’s interesting. I know it has been a huge gripe for years.

Peter Is it a couple of thousand pounds?

Jon I quote from The Stage’s coverage of the conference. “Madeleine Worrall said: ‘Sally offers her performers, and in most cases her stage managers, a royalties deal because she is honest enough to recognise that her companies help create both actual content in terms of text, but also their creative input through improvisation, devising and discussion contributes in real terms to the productions she makes’… Worrall said each cast member made upwards of £3,000 in royalties, which made her question why this arrangement does not happen more often in theatre.”

Annie That’s fabulous.

Jon Of course the original 22 cast members of Hamilton – which you wouldn’t necessarily ever equate with being a devised show – have a share of 1%. I’d imagine that 1% of Hamilton is a decent whack.

Annie I didn’t know that about Hamilton – that’s great.

Jenny It’s 1% of every production worldwide, I believe. That’s for the original workshop cast, many of whom became part of the original cast.

Annie I love that: feeding the arts and the people within it. Hooray!

Jon The Equity motion aims to standardise it across the industry.

Jenny It helps that Hamilton’s leading man was also the writer, so the cast had a connection with him personally.

Annie Absolutely, that helps.

Adam That is amazing. And Hamilton was very definitely written.

Jon I think some of the original Royal Shakespeare Company cast of Les Miserables came up with harmonies that are used worldwide now, too.

Ros Devised theatre can throw up all sorts of challenges for a stage management and technical team, but I love it. I find the exploration of a topic or starter text via devised methods really interesting, and often it can produce really exciting results.

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