FAQs for Theatre Makers

We are often asked questions by theatre makers, as well as drama students and other people, who are interested in Told by an Idiot and finding out more about how we make our work.

We asked Artistic Director Paul Hunter some of the most commonly asked questions...here are his answers!

What do you typically use as stimuli or starting points for a new production?

The stimuli or starting points for Told by an Idiot productions are very varied. They can range from a whole novel or a film, or a moment of real-life experience, or a shard of an idea – a tangential moment that we start from in a room. Whatever that is, we always use this as a launchpad to go somewhere else, rather than an end in itself. Even if we have a developed starting point, like a novel, we depart from that in quite bold ways, sometimes quite quickly. A common starting point might be music; we’re also very influenced by film so we often start by looking at the visual language of film. We find these can be a really strong starting points when you’re devising theatre.

What are the strategies, processes and techniques that you use when devising a new theatre production?

Over the last 25 years, we’ve developed a lot of strategies and techniques to enable us to create our work. The vast majority of our work is created from scratch, from an idea that someone has. We go into a room with a variety of different artists – performers, musicians, poets – and we start creating.

One of the main things that’s helped us make our work over that time is the idea of restriction, and this becomes crucial when all your work is created through improvisation. If you have no restrictions, you can do anything, which means you often end up doing nothing. When performers are improvising verbally, for example, the restriction is often to put their brain somewhere else, so they don’t focus on what they’re saying – and it’s amazing what that can do to liberate a performer. It takes the pressure off them being funny, being clever, being entertaining, and they will come up with really surprising material.

We often look at, and play around with, how we might work with space (for example, the space between two performers, or a performer and a group of performers, the space between the performer and the audience). We’re also interested in transformation, which might be props or costumes or the set itself – in some of our work, the set has transformed fluidly throughout the show to take the audience on a journey, both literally and metaphorically. Often when we first start a piece and the beginnings of the narrative start coming together, we will use the restriction of the actors performing without words, so that rather than the words telling the story, we rely purely on the actors’ bodies and the visual language we’re employing. This means that when we do add language, the language is doing something different – it isn’t telling the audience what’s happening, it’s revealing something about the characters, and it means that the piece has a really strong visual language – and the spoken text sits on top of that.

What tips or advice do you have for creating new theatre?

- Try to ensure that you don’t talk too much about the show you’re trying to make, but that you find ways, right from the beginning, of actively getting up and trying things.

- The process of creating new material can be a very vulnerable place to be in. As a director, when you’re asking people to look at and talk about what’s been created, ask them what they liked about what they saw, rather than focusing on the negative. By asking, “what did we like about that?” you’re ensuring that the atmosphere remains buoyant, which is really crucial.

- Generate a lot of material. You’ll need to create around three times the amount of material you actually need to create something interesting on stage! You can then sieve through to find the best bits that will go into your show.

- Try every idea and make your process collaborative – create an atmosphere where everybody feels they have a voice, is invested in the process and feels like they have ownership of it.

How do you incorporate different imaginations in Told by an Idiot’s collaborative process?

At Told by an Idiot we’re big believers in the collective imagination. We don’t believe that one person’s imagination will necessarily carry all the things required to make an interesting show – it’s about how different imaginations come together. That doesn’t mean you all have to agree all of the time – sometimes a healthy disagreement can be really useful as you try to find your journey through the piece – but the collective imagination means that you have to respect other people’s imagination and their ideas, and it has to be a space in which everybody can express that. Also it’s interesting to have in the room people who see things slightly differently – I think some of our most interesting work has come from an eclectic range of imaginations in the room, and different experiences, because you get very different ideas coming up.