Scratching the Surface of a Devising Process

A group of 21 people sit and stand on a large letters spelling out 'ABERDEEN' on a stone paved ground. One person is lying across the top of the 'R' and 'D'. There is a tree and bridge in the background, with stairs leading off the left side.


After having a brilliant time leading Shapeshift Aberdeen, working with the city’s exciting young artists, I’ve pulled together a directory of my favourite companies that inspire my work and the devising techniques I introduced in the workshops. Throughout the week, we tried out tonnes of different ways of making contemporary performance, including physical theatre, creative adaptation, autobiographical and multimedia performance. We only really scratched the surface of these modes of making so here’s some further resources and information to get stuck into if a particular company stuck with you during Shapeshift Aberdeen, or if you missed out on the project and fancy playing catch up! 


We started the week off with some physical theatre, using techniques by Complicité to explore space in devising. Using 2 metre bamboo sticks, we worked in pairs moving around the room, with the bamboo sticks held between our forefingers. Ducking and stepping over one another’s sticks, intense focus had to be held to stop the stick from clattering to the ground. As we continued working with the sticks and observing one another, we were able to read into narratives and stories between pairs, analysing what the space between them held. 

We then looked at expanding and constricting space, making scenes and images in vast spaces, then, taping small boxes on the floor and figuring out how we could show a car chase or an explosion in a 1 metre box. How do restrictions and rules help us think, quite literally, outside of the box when devising and result in more interesting modes of making? We also interrogated Complicité’s notion of the audience’s involvement and ‘complicity’ with what is happening on stage. More about their practice can be found on their website here

A group of 5 young people sit and lie on a wooden floor around a large sheet of white paper. The paper has yellow and red writing and scribbles on it. Two of the young people hold yellow and red pens in their hands.

making maps of aberdeen, inspired by
nightwalks with teenagers

5 young people sit in a circle of chairs facing inwards towards one another on a wooden floor. Another group of 7 young people stand in the background outside the circle looking in on the people sitting down, some with crossed arms, some with arms by their side. The left side of the image is washed in a strong red light, while the right side of the image is washed in a strong blue/purple light.

participants exploring different techniques
in making physical theatre


Frantic Assembly use The Frantic Method to help performers develop choreographies in unintimidating ways, through a series of simple actions and instructions. We used exercises ‘Hymns Hands’ and ‘Round, By, Through’ during Shapeshift Aberdeen. Both partner activities involve small actions around hand placement on anothers’ body or finding ways to move ‘round’, ‘by’ and ‘through’ one another. By changing our emotional intentions, actions became more laden with story without any need for us to verbally articulate them. More resources can be found here

goat island

Another method we used for devising abstract movement was Goat Island’s ‘Impossible Tasks’. Everyone writes an impossible task, e.g. ‘To grow a plant on your head’ or ‘To skydive through the floor’. The tasks are swapped and each person develops a movement in response, then forming larger groups and stringing their movements together into a longer sequence. Without sharing your impossible task with your group or audience, the choreographies have become their own entity, holding meaning far removed from their original source. 

A young performer leans forward with her side to the camera, face covered by her hair. She faces another young person on their knees with their arms outstretched in front of them. The two figures are surrounded by young people sitting cross-legged on a wooden floor. The scene is washed in bright yellow light.


Mammalian Diving Reflex are a Canadian performance company who “create site and social-specific performance events, theatre productions, participatory gallery installations, videos, art objects and theoretical texts to foster dialogue and dismantle barriers between individuals of all backgrounds by bringing people together in new and unusual ways.” During Shapeshift Aberdeen we looked at their work Nightwalks with Teenagers, in which teenagers take an adult audience on a tour of their city at night. We discussed Artistic Director Darren O’Donnell’s writing on the belief that young people should be folded into all decision-making in society and how this work explored young people taking up public space in a way that is often actively discouraged. 

Inspired by Nightwalks with Teenagers and the psychogeographic practices of The Situationists, we made maps of Aberdeen. However, these were not maps with the accuracy of an Ordinance Survey Map, but maps shaped by our own experiences of the city. They were dotted with anecdotes of meaningful interactions that happened at bus stops, in car parks, in cinemas. We then set out into public to make short films inspired by these. 


Our films were in response to Gob Squad’s Super Night Shot. Gob Squad demonstrate how multimedia performance doesn’t need to be high tech and complicated. With a series of basic cameras and a set of simple timings and rules, the participants were able to create nuanced and meaningful performance, filming their solo explorations of a city and bringing them together into a four-screen showcase.  

Everyone sat out with the aim to film a series of one-minute videos, including a dance, a story, a shot of stillness etc. These were then edited together into short films nodding to the work of Mammalian Diving Reflex and Gob Squad. 

Two figures stand and smile at the camera, with a big letter 'A' in the background behind them. The figure on the left wears a long grey coat, a red and black scarf and a black cap. The figure on the right is wearing a brown and black puffer jacket and a grey beanie.

“Throughout the week, we tried out tonnes of different ways of making contemporary performance, including physical theatre, creative adaptation, autobiographical and multimedia performance.”


Towards the end of the week we looked into Sheffield-based company Forced Entertainment. Artistic Director Tim Etchells has an array of Performance Writing exercises in his book ‘Certain Fragments’. We used his prompt “A kind of silence…” to create a performance list, delivering live responses to the stimulus until we had exhausted it. This collaborative list resulted in a gorgeous ebb and flow of humour and heartbreak, the banal and the extraordinary. 

The kind of silence when the house lights go down before a big performance
The kind of silence in an exam hall
The kind of silence after you say ‘I love you’ and they don’t respond
The kind of silence while you wait for the microwave
The kind of silence when you hear bad news
The kind of silence before you shout surprise
The kind of silence while you’re carefully trying to apply eyeliner
The kind of silence after a bomb goes off

We wrote these texts quickly, without overthinking, avoiding feeling precious or inhibited in our writing. Eventually we threw all the pieces of paper into the middle and swapped texts, becoming well versed in adopting other people’s writing and delivering it as our own. More can be found about Forced Entertainment’s work on their website here


Another key part of Shapeshift Aberdeen involved looking into creative adaptation. We explored how companies like Figs in Wigs and Cade & MacAskill used the classic texts of Little Women and Pinocchio to create new and original work that spoke to wider political issues of the modern world. As a group we investigated four classic texts and wrote down everything we associated with that text, whether that is part of the plot, actors from the film or songs that reference the story. Using these disparate elements, we made small pieces in conversation with the classic texts.  

All of these companies use varied devising techniques to create original contemporary performance. While we shape our own practices, we can pick and choose what influences our work, what methods we want to borrow or tweak to shape our own style. But what these companies all have in common is a responsiveness to the world around us. My main message as we conclude Shapeshift would be: we already have everything we need inside of us and in the environments around us to create new and exciting performance for the modern world. 

– Sally Charlton, Lead Artist on Shapeshift Aberdeen