Devising a Show: A Unique Theater Experience Mirroring Life

NDSU assistant professor Marc Devine is collaborating with student-actors to bring stories from local foster parents to audiences in "Home."

Story by Nicole Thom-Arens | Photos by Justin Eiler, NDSU | March 21, 2023

People love stories. According to NDSU assistant professor of theatre arts Marc Devine, humans are hardwired for them.

“Stories are important because that’s how humans learn; we’re natural storytellers,” Marc said. “Stories help us gain understanding and empathy for one another because when someone tells a story, we try to understand; we place ourselves in that situation.”

Marc grew up in Denton, Texas, just north of Dallas. After attending college in New Mexico, working as an actor in Los Angeles, and completing graduate school in Colorado, Marc started his teaching career at Ball State University in 2014 and came to North Dakota State University in 2018. During his time in Los Angeles in 2005, Marc started working in devised theater, which is an ensemble-driven form of creating theater where the director and cast collaborate to make the show together. The result is often personal and intimate.

“Devising can be empowering — especially for students who don’t see themselves represented because, historically, the majority of plays have been written by straight, white men. Or, for those who don’t see plays representing issues that they would like to have a voice in, devised work gives them an avenue to create something that speaks to their experience. For some NDSU students, that’s been very powerful,” Marc said.

One of NDSU Theatre Arts’ spring productions is a devised play, directed by Marc, called “Home.” The ethnographic play will depict stories of foster parents in the Fargo-Moorhead community. Five student-actors will embody local foster parents who are opening their homes to children in need. Marc spent months conducting interviews, and he and the students will work together to discover common themes and develop characters who will deliver these stories to audiences in a creative, but cohesive, way.

“I’ve interviewed about eight people who are foster parents in this area. This piece is really hearing their stories. It’s not linear. It’s their conversations that they’ve had with me. We’re giving a voice to these really wonderful, heartfelt, sometimes sad, sometimes very uplifting tales of what they go through,” Marc said. “We’re going to perform it in the Memorial Union Gallery, so that makes it different than a traditional theater show because we’re using the site-specific nature of the gallery space.”

Marc Devine, NDSU assistant professor of theatre arts, and student-actors collaborate to discover common themes as they build the play’s structure and storyline.

Audiences can expect the actors to utilize the gallery space as a way to move through the production. The gallery also offers an opportunity for additional storytelling before, during, and after the show’s run.

“I want to also make it available for those who can’t go see the show. If you go to the gallery, you’ll see some of the photos I’ve taken while in foster homes and what we’ve designed during the production to recreate lived-in spaces, and there will be a recording of the actors telling these stories available through a QR code,” Marc said.

Student-actors and BFA musical theatre majors Katie Hanson ’23 and Ethan Hanson ’24 (no relation) are looking forward to this special opportunity.

“The level of creativity and connection that can happen with devising a show is really unique,” Katie said. “It’s different from what you get with other shows where you have your dramatic structure, the text, and all the characters are laid out for you. This is taking theater and viewing it from a completely different lens.”

“I have a great cast and director I get to work with. I love the ability to be able to create this show with them,” Ethan said. “Because these are stories from real people who have opened their homes to strangers makes this that much more touching. I really want to do this well.”

Student-actors Katie Hanson '23 and Ethan Hanson '24 rehearse lines for "Home."

The learning opportunities for students that come with working on a devised show mirror life and will last long after the lights go out on this production if students are open to going through the process.

“It can be very stressful because you’re creating, and you have to partner with the unknown and trust that you’re going to build the thing, and then the piece starts to unfold as you build it,” Marc said about the devising process. “I never approach a project and say this is exactly how this is going to end. It shifts as we’re creating it. There’s improvisation that happens, there’s trying things out that don’t work and being OK with that, being OK with failing; it’s a really useful skill. Sometimes, to paraphrase the novelist Samuel Beckett, it’s teaching them to fail, fail more, and fail better. Keep going and keep trying things.”

“Home” runs March 30-31 and April 1 and 5-6, 2023, at 7:30 p.m. in the Memorial Union Gallery. Seating is limited. Check the NDSU Theatre Arts homepage for ticket availability.

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