by Makenna Johnston, dramaturg
In a ‘special projects’ theatre class held between January and March of 2020, four students and their professor began devising a show. Their devising team? David Morgan (professor), Clara Wright, Mikah Vaclaw, Sten Shearer, and Dylan Wright. Their source text? The Turn of the Screw, a novel by Henry James.
Though the team’s original devising process was cut short due to the Covid-19 pandemic, aspects of their invaluable contributions to the production live on. Each student deviser’s unique perspective about the story and devising process are explored below.
Our professor David Morgan had the idea to create a devised piece of theatre to take to the Edinburgh fringe festival with a group of students. He was drawn to the script of the Turn of the Screw, but wanted to do his own take on it, so he decided to create a new adaptation of the original book with a group of students. He was drawn to the eerie nature of the piece, the elements of horror, and the slow descent into madness of the governess. I joined Dave’s class to write and devise this script because, first of all, working with Dave has always been a pleasure, but the story was intriguing to me as well. I loved the idea of studying and understanding a layered female character. I don’t think there are enough interesting female characters out there at the moment. The governess was affected greatly by societal pressures and a deep, depressing history that drove her to madness when she arrived at Bly. The story was mesmerizing. I was also excited to work the muscle of creating a new piece of theatre. I am not confident in my writing abilities, but it was exciting to take a piece of literature that already existed and make something new and interesting out of it, using visual elements that you can’t get from reading a book. We not only wrote dialogue, but we also wrote out ways we could use movement, sound, lighting, puppetry, and more to tell the story in the most effective way possible.
The devising process was a blast! Dave would tell us what scene he wanted us to write and we would each go home and write out our own interpretation of the story. The next class, we would get together and go over which elements of people’s scenes we liked best, which moments were the most clear, and which lines we for sure wanted to keep in the final script. Sometimes our interpretations were so different and unique that it was difficult to choose which direction the piece needed to go. Ultimately, Dave would piece together each of our scenes into a cohesive script. Other moments I enjoyed were when we would put scenes on their feet and act them out to see how they translated to the stage. The introduction especially benefited from this exercise. The last exciting part of the devising process that I’ll talk about is writing the music. I hadn’t written original music like this before so it was such a cool experience creating sound like this for the first time. I didn’t ever think about what scene I was writing for, but Dave told me what tone he was looking for in a piece of music and then I experimented until I found something I liked by layering on different sounds I could make on my violin. It was an overall thrilling experience!
First, we all read the book over Christmas break, and when we had our first meetings as a group, we talked about what stood out to us in the story and what we wanted our retelling of the story to be. Something we really wanted to explore was the idea that the ghosts were actually things born out of trauma the governess had experienced in her youth, and how she was the only one that could see them/was affected by them. We also wanted to explore jealousy between Mrs. Grose and the Governess. Once we had fleshed out what was important to us, we started writing. Dave would tell us what scene he wanted us to write for homework, and we’d all come back with our different written versions of that scene. Then, in class, we would read them aloud together and talk about what we thought worked, and what didn’t. Dave would then take all of our scripts and compile them together into one cohesive scene.
We were able to start toying with the introduction to the play, and Clara wrote some really cool violin music for it.
The process of devising the script was the five of us (David Morgan, Clara and Dylan Wright, Mikah Vaclaw, and myself) would get together a couple times a week. Initially, David gave us some conceptual ideas he had for the show (like using movable screens that could utilize shadow work). Then we all read the original story. At each meeting, we would assign a chunk of the original story as our writing assignment. Using that chunk of the story as inspiration, the four students would go home and write a scene that translated that section of the original story into a play scene. Through that process, we collaboratively came to an understanding of the themes that we wanted the play to explore as well as theatrical devices and ideas that we thought would work well in putting the play on its feet.
Simultaneously to writing these scenes, we were also using our class time to experiment with staging and blocking using the earlier scenes that we had written. So for instance, when we were about halfway through writing the script, we were also staging what the early scenes would look like to help test if the script we were writing worked in practice as well as on paper.
We chose this project because we obviously needed something in the public domain that we wouldn’t need to pay royalties for, but aside from that this story really highlights the mental turmoil of a young governess as she grapples with her duties as a woman and her place in the world religiously as well. We took this story to an extremely dark place– it has since been edited for this particular production– that orbited around this idea of religious toxicity, something all too familiar in Utah. We felt that it was important to excavate and expose the uncomfortable and truly ugly parts of religion and the toll it can take on us. I wanted to work on this project because Mikah, Sten, Clara, and Dave are some of my favorite people and artists. The driving force really, as mentioned earlier, is that we wanted to create. We were all itching to create something. None of us needed this class credits-wise so the idea of coming together to tell a ghost story that echoes modern themes in a bare-bones, devised manner was extremely appealing. Unfortunately we were never able to perform this production because of COVID. But the devising process was an invaluable gem. We would each read the same chapter of The Turn of the Screw and then come to class with our own interpretation of this chapter in scene-form, creating dialogue and stage directions. Dave would then pull the pieces from each that rendered a clearer, more specific story and then we would go from there. When we would arrive in class we would also read each other’s scenes out loud to get a feel for them. It was a marvelous process.