Interview: James Yeatman on Complicite ‘Devising’ Methods

*Originally written for the National Centre for Circus Arts Blog*

The National Centre for Circus Arts recently caught up with James Yeatman of Complicite and co-founder of Kandinsky who has been giving workshops to their Higher Education students on performance ‘devising’ techniques.


He introduces himself: “I’m a theatre director and I guess the reason that I’m here is that I work a lot with Complicite theatre company devising shows – I’ve made three with them. I was the Associate Director on Master and Margarita and directed a revival of their show Lionboy. Last year I worked in Germany making a show called Beware of Pity. It’s in German and it’s going to come to London next year. So I work a lot with devising theatre, basically.”

At the National Centre, he’s been teaching students in the second year of our Foundation Degree (pictured) some of those devising skills, or as he puts it, the “ways, techniques and methods about how you make up work.” These are generally understood to be Complicite techniques, which originally come from Ecole Jacques Lecoq, a school in Paris famous for teaching mime, clowning and physical theatre, where Complicite’s four founders met.

So what does that process of devising look like exactly, in practice? “For the first half of the course we had loads of kinds of stimulus. So we had pictures, or bits of books, or we went out to the street and watched people. And we just found different ways of taking the stimuli and putting them on stage. For the second half of the course it was about bringing in your own stuff that interested you. Then in groups we worked on making little devised pieces.”

The Degree programmes at the National Centre benefit from a broad range of cross-collaboration across art forms like dance and drama but the great majority of the students’ time is spent learning and perfecting their chosen circus disciplines. This intense solo way of working and opportunity to regularly work one-to-one with their teachers is perhaps unique to a circus among performing arts schools. James sees it as “sportsperson like, as it were.”

When asked whether he felt that devising more theatrical work on the course was a new experience for the students, James was keen to break down barriers about how we define different genres of performance. “I mean they’re kind of ludicrous terminologies aren’t they – like ‘theatre’ and ‘circus’ and their being different things….” He referred to companies like Circa, whose productions have a close relationship with storytelling, and in general that “circus is increasingly pushed towards types of theatre.”

With that in mind, his aspirations for the students were about bridging gaps in knowledge between circus and theatre. “I guess it was all about teaching the students ideas about narrative and being able to talk on stage. That sounds stupid but I think it’s less developed in circus. And making stories – that idea of making stories is obviously quite abstract. If you’re doing trapeze all day it’s quite an abstract thing about, “How do I make a story out of this?”” He continues, “So in way it was unfamiliar but I don’t think it was that unfamiliar to them. They seemed fairly happy to go off and make things. Nothing stopped them.”

The aspect that was newer to the students was working closely together as a group, a skill that will be essential as they prepare for their ensemble show at the end of the year. That being said, as James explains, “Devising is very specific anyway because there’s no hard and fast rule about how work is made.” He makes floaty hand gestures to elaborate: “There’s often a slightly dreamy kind of thing that it’s all generated by osmosis through the group. And that’s partly true. But somebody or some people at different times do need to take responsibility for what’s going on and kick everyone else up the arse.”

His aim, in the end, for the students was to think about ultimately what story they want to tell. Then for them to be able to use whatever stimulus and have the confidence to be like, “OK. I can get in a room with my mates and we can make something.”

The final pieces the students presented “were all different; they were all very different, which I quite liked. It wasn’t like everyone was making a slightly dance-y piece about something. They were all quite boldly different, which I was pleased with.”