Faculty member’s NEH grant to create devised theater institute for educators

September 28, 2022

Quinn Bauriedel, associate professor and director for UArts’ Devised Performance program, recently received a $157,998 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to create a two-week residential institute focused on devised theater. When it launches next summer in Philadelphia, the institute will assemble 25 higher education faculty members from across the country for an intensive study of this form of theater-making, including exploring its history and enduring impact. It is one of just a dozen projects in Pennsylvania funded by the NEH.

The institute, titled Preserving and Transmitting American Ensemble-Based Devised Theater, will be held at Pig Iron Theater Company’s headquarters in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood over the first two weeks of June. Bauriedel is a co-founder and co-artistic director of Pig Iron, which, for more than 25 years, has presented groundbreaking devised work that is steeped in the teachings of lauded French actor, mime and movement coach Jacques Lecoq. The endeavor, Bauriedel said, will also be supported by UArts students through summer positions.

For the uninitiated, “devised theater” is a relatively new term that is often used interchangeably with “ensemble” in training programs and institutes of higher education nationwide. What sets it apart from typical theater hierarchy is that authorship is shared among a group, rather than a single person, Bauriedel said.

“In a devising process, there are contributions to the writing that might come from the costume designer, the lighting designer, the one who is credited as the writer, as well as the actors and directors,” he explained. “In our process, the actors, and designers, and director, and writer are all trying to crack something together. The group voice, the collaborative voice, the ensemble voice is actually the thing the audience receives pretty strongly.”

Though the term might be relatively new, the practice itself is not, Bauriedel said. Examples can be found throughout history, even in Shakespeare’s days. “There were actors who were improvising with some structure alongside Shakespeare’s writing, but he was taking contributions from a lot of the actors that were part of his troupe. So who knows where those words actually came from.”

Uncovering and cataloging devised theater’s history in the United States is a crucial component of the institute and is reflective of NEH grants’ tendency to require research and academic pursuits. Bauriedel expects the institute to bridge the gap between devised theater’s historical and critical study, expediting the scholarship and criticism that lags its sustained impact.

In all of the institute’s components, the throughline is chronicling and preserving. As Bauriedel puts it, it can be easy to document the many different ways a play has been performed around the world, but a devised piece, often handmade by artists and continually performed by them with a script that may not be as coherent as a playwright’s work, is much more difficult. Throughout U.S. history, he said, devised works have originated in places like churches and community centers with no documentation. It’s his hope that each of the 25 participants will bring with them what they feel is an untold story from their own communities.

“There’s an ephemerality to our art form that may be hard to bind,” Bauriedel said. “But hopefully the discourse surrounding it will be something that appears more and more in higher ed.”

Additionally, the institute will delve into case studies that highlight ensembles across the country that have been created, sustained and woven into their community’s cultural fabric. In doing so, the institute will preserve a vital segment of the country’s cultural heritage and create a robust repository of nearly 60 years of untold stories from the country’s numerous and diverse ensembles.

The institute will also include multiple curriculum-building activities, which participants can easily insert into a variety of classes they lead, from theater history seminars to directing classes focused directly on devising. In August, Pig Iron will advance the institute’s work through roundtable sessions at the Association for Theater in Higher Ed Conference in Austin.

Pictured: a still from Pig Iron's 2021 production of Love Unpunished. Photo by Mimi Lien.