Developing new work is exciting; it’s probably one of the most fun, rewarding things you can do as an actor ‘between jobs’ to keep your skills honed and sharp. Not only do you get the chance to work on new material in a totally safe, judgement-free environment, but you’ll also often find yourself enjoying a greater level of creative control: people want to hear all the opinions you usually keep bottled up about the show you work on! However, before you go power-mad, there are a lot of subtleties to navigate when you workshop something and a few considerations worth having before you step into the room. This article should help you identify the best (and worst) practices you can bring to a development, ensuring that you are a productive and integral part of the development team.
What is a ‘Development’?
Fair question. A ‘development’ is the work-shopping of a new play—usually by the original creative team—with the objective of either improving the script or exploring possibilities for how best to realise the work as a staged production. A ‘development’ may happen prior to the staging of a play, or be run to present a bare-bones version for potential investors; it is worth remembering that your participation in one does not necessarily mean you will be cast in the final production itself.
As for what is expected of you: it really does change depending on the development. For a devised work, you may be actively participating in the making of the show. When working on a new script, you’ll usually read it a few times before doing some feedback and perhaps light improv to interrogate scenes or character. If you’ve been called into a larger-scale development—say, for a new musical being funded by an established production company—it will probably feel more like participating in a mini production: you’ll read, rehearse and then perform the finished product.
Talk to Creatives
Given the wide range of goals that may be set for a development, if inquiring (or approached) about participating in one, talk to the people in charge and ask what your role will be: get a sense of the kind of room you’ll be stepping into, and if that kind of environment will allow you to do your best work. Look for creatives passionate about your input—not just their project—and who are going to respect your voice and opinions. Are they professional? Can they show you a schedule that maps out how your time will best be used? Some writers and directors consider actors in developments like guinea pigs in an experiment: vague plans and goals are helpful red flags for working out which creatives are going to treat you like a Sim in a swimming pool.
Another important conversation to have is one where you set goals for your participation. This can be an effective means of assisting first-time/emerging writers and directors refine plans that reflect their inexperience. Ask them point-blank: “What are you trying to achieve/explore?” And if their objective feels vague, this is the time to gently suggest some ways in which you might be helpful.
Outline your skillset as an actor, reassure them that you are there to help realise the best version of the work.
Getting Down to Work
Next is the fun bit: actually work-shopping the project in the room with others. While the contents of each development will vary to suit its desired outcome (as we have already covered), here are a few basic activities you are sure to encounter in some form or another:
In most instances, a development will begin with a table read of the script in its current form, and end with another reading intended to contextualise new material/findings. If a writer is bringing new material to each session of a multi-day development, the reading of this will usually serve as the session’s departure point.
The writer/director may invite actors to give feedback on the script, writing, character, plot or themes. Such feedback should be structured, so as to keep the discussion focused on aspects that most require the author’s attention. (This is where your talk with creatives about goals can help to establish respectful and productive boundaries.)
For a more complete script, or a development seeking to explore production options, you may start to do some elementary staging. Prepare for this as you would any rehearsal, and be ready to be malleable with whatever a director or choreographer demands.
For a less developed script, actors may be asked to help write out a timeline for events in the story. This exercise is a useful examination of plot and character arcs, as well as an indicator of which moments in a work are memorable or expendable.
Work-shopping New Scenes:
You may find yourself working on new scenes that the writer brings into the development room, based on your previous findings. These don’t always make it into the next version of the full script, but can be great tools for character analysis and plotting.
In a similar vein to new scenes, writers and directors may ask you to improvise based on characters or plot points they wish to help flesh out or establish for backstory. Improvisation is a unique tool that actors can bring to a development.
Character work is a popular activity in developments. You may be asked to write down some details about your character, perform in a ‘hot seat’ exercise where you are interviewed as them, or simply walk and experience their space to allow the writer to get a sense of their physicality.
In a similar vein to character work, world-building will see you develop a greater understanding of the world of the play. This can cross into some light dramaturgical realms as you take notes of what kind of setting the story takes place in, devise and write descriptions of your character’s home or place of business, or even map out the world of the play on the floor using craft materials.
These kinds of activities are invaluable in developing your skills as an actor and understanding of the wider craft of theatre. When developing a show, be sure to look at your peers and learn from them as well. Often, a veteran actor, with years of experience developing work in a collaborative environment, will teach you far more than any of the creative leads ‘in charge’ of the development itself.
Write everything down. Have a personal record of your thoughts, questions and discoveries—and read back over them before each session to contextualise the day’s objectives. Some developments will provide you with a notepad to do exactly this. While this is very helpful and thoughtful of them, you may find yourself recording certain things for your eyes only: a harsh opinion or something you later disagree with in light of other findings. If handed pen and paper, check-in with the creatives what the expectations are, and whether or not you’ll be asked to hand back the materials at the end.
Have Feelings, Make Observations, Ask Questions
Sooner or later, your role in a development will see you giving feedback. While you should never shy away from saying what you think or feel, do take some time to think about how you broach such topics. Discuss your feelings towards characters or scenes or choices, and make observations about how the story progresses: your goal should be to get the creatives to understand why you have formed an opinion, so even if they disagree with you, they can see how this disparity formed. Do you hate the character you’re playing with an absolute passion? Talk about why that’s the case: if it was intended by the writer, they know they’re on the right track. If not, you’ve given them reasoning as to why you’ve had that reaction. Either way, you’ll be much more effective in conveying your thoughts than if you’d just offered a flat opinion.
In any situation, feedback in the form of a question is the strongest means of delivering an opinion. Try to structure your thoughts as questions, as this is a direct provocation for the writer/director to have to speak to a choice directly. Some writers even request that all feedback is delivered as a question, as it streamlines their process of sifting through what was said and helps them work on speaking straight to the issue at hand.
Keep it Professional
One final note—and as much one for your peers as it is for yourself. Developments can be fun, pressure-free spaces that invite creativity and uninhibited expression. That said: if you feel the conduct of the room or the productivity of the session starting to slip, don’t be afraid to try and steer proceedings back to the objective of the day. As with any other feedback, a well-placed question can do the trick: “Should we move on to X?” “I wonder if we could do more to interrogate Y before we continue?” This is all about self-respect and knowing your worth as an artist. Don’t stand for your time being wasted, or your opinion not being heard—especially when somebody has begged both things from you to improve their own work.
A show development, at any level, can feel very much like an actual production. When it’s complete, take the time to decompress, consider what you’ve learned and look towards the next project. As a rule, it’s best not to think of yourself as having a foot-in-the-door for casting in the eventual production—best to be pleasantly surprised if they decide to call you back in.
Just remember to enjoy it all: you are building something new and enriching your own skills all at once. And while you’re at it, think about the fact that your contribution—no matter how small—can help the work itself find the strength to endure, long after you and the writer and all the rest are long gone. It’s a hell of a way to make a lasting contribution to the creative community.