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Strategies for Playbuilding: Helping Groups Translate Issues into Theatre
Heinemann Drama, 2001
Winner of the Distinguished Book Award for outstanding contribution to the field from the American Alliance for Theatre & Education
Get Strategies for Playbuilding at bookstores or from the publisher, here.

Review by Alice Bayliss, Bretton Hall, University of Leeds in Research in Drama Education, Vol. 8, No. 1, 2003

 

Will Weigler’s book is a godsend for anyone considering devising issue-based theatre with young people. For those brand new to drama and devising it explains the process logically and clearly, pointing out the potential pitfalls and providing safety nets and safeguards in the form of worksheets, exercises and workshop structures. For those who have dabbled with devising and have encountered its frustrations on a regular basis, it helps us to review our own techniques and strategies and provides straightforward, common sense suggestions to weave into our own work. The book effortlessly combines theory and practice and is littered with Weigler’s personal stories of how the youngsters he has worked with have moved away from being mere puppets in a fictional stage world to becoming artists and active makers of meaning. The text is lively, accessible and whilst it works towards formal scripting of creative work, is entirely relevant for those wishing to develop the process by which young people turn ideas into sophisticated dramatic expression.

In Part One, Developing an Ensemble and Building Skills, Weigler looks closely at how to create an environment of respect, teamwork and commitment. He explains the general procedures for running script development workshops and gives clear examples of exercises designed to develop actors’ ensemble skills and use of imagination. He goes through the step-by-step practicalities of meeting a group for the first time through to how to negotiate and agree working practices. Each point he makes throughout the book is split into useful ‘What to do’ and ‘Why’ sections. He manages to make the process accessible for those completely new to devising without patronising old hands. He lays particular emphasis on the working contract and how to approach issues of respect (not only for one another but also for the material, the space and the self). He reminds us of the importance of these initial stages in devising and how they pave the way for future success. He goes on to share some interesting thoughts on warm-up sessions, communal singing, performance journals, concentration and confidence, offering practical suggestions and further reading along the way. His section ‘Investigating the Tools’ is a fascinating and detailed explanation of how to use props as a vehicle of expression in the exploratory phases of script development. By playing with found objects, images, gestures and sounds the group become conversant with the physical world of the stage and articulate in their crafting of drama to create meaning.

Part Two, Identifying and Investigating the Topic, deals with the often fraught moments when a group has to select a topic which they will then develop into a piece of theatre for public consumption. Weigler is uncompromising in his assertion that the issue must be closely connected to the group itself and yet has developed a series of effective questioning techniques which serve to open up the issue to the wider complexities, contradictions and alternative perspectives which will take the drama beyond the personal and towards the universal. By sharing experiences the group is led to consider social gests and is encouraged to unpack the stories using a series of tropes that are then collected and recorded as baskets of raw material to be called upon later in the creative process.

Parts Three and Four begin to tackle the task of putting diverse ideas into effective theatrical form and allowing the piece to take shape. Case study examples are used to illuminate how the groups shift from detailed discussion to crafting and assembling dramatic moments using the now familiar tools of dialogue, movement, gesture, image, song and dance. Weigler talks with clarity about how material generated thus far can be shaped, sorted and organised using narrative or episodic structures, how montage can be used, how places, props and images can be utilised to unify meaning. He considers dramatic structure in detail, as would a lone playwright. It is this single coherent view of a collaborative piece which is often lacking in student devised drama and results in poor articulation and expression of ideas. Weigler gives us clear strategies for providing solid frameworks on which to hang groups’ ideas.

It is here and in the following section on Rehearsing and Performing where the text begins to challenge the more traditional approach of English classrooms and gives us food for thought. The shift from a participatory democracy to a representative democracy, where the director begins to take operational control, is one which does not sit comfortably with many of us teaching drama in schools (nor indeed with many examination boards). However, Strategies for Playbuilding is one of the very few texts I have read that gives specific tips on how to direct young people effectively. As a drama teacher I have never been taught how to direct. I have learnt by example, by experiment and by mistake. Not only does Will Weigler rectify this gap he also gives us a reappraisal of epic acting which simplifies and clarifies the technique beautifully. He re-frames Brecht’s ideas and takes us back to the Street Accident concluding and contextualising his work on theatre, young people and social change.

Weigler’s huge enthusiasm for this type of work comes across to the reader time and again. Every chapter is punctuated with examples of how each technique has worked on a live project. This not only makes the book a rich and lively read but also convinces us of Weigler’s credentials as a man who has very much walked the walk when it comes to issue-based drama and young people. This is a man who not only knows drama, he knows young people and how to get the best from them.