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IT STARTS WITH A SEED THAT IS PLANTED: The Creative Process of Devising Theatre

By Declan McDermott

Contemporary theatre has begun to shift in a new direction, creating a demand for new work and controversial topics in live performance. Many theatre lovers have started to want more from the industry, including experimental and less classical approaches to the artform. Even in revival productions of theatrical classics, such as Oklahoma and Chicago, which are currently on Broadway, audiences are looking for more than sheer spectacle from each production. They want to see something different and innovative, something less streamlined and expected. This desire for a fresh approach has incited a rise in experimental and devised theatre, leading many theatre companies to produce new work and use more collaborative methods.

It is in this experimental mindset that Sara Katzoff creates her work. Sara, a current Masters Directing Candidate at Boston University, is a theatre artist with a focus in devising original work, directing, and artistic direction. Immediately after finishing her undergraduate degree in Performance Studies at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Sara started her own theatre organization, Bazaar Productions and the Berkshire Fringe Festival, where she is currently one of the co-artistic directors. Additionally, while she was devising work alongside her colleagues at Bazaar and the Berkshire Fringe, Katzoff served in several adjunct, guest artist, and lecturer positions with Bard College at Simon’s Rock, University at Albany, Barrington Stage Company, WAM Theatre, and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA). Now, Sara is in her final year of the MFA Directing program at Boston University and last directed the main stage production, The Lathe of Heaven, which premiered April 26.

Following her notable success in the past decade and considering the impact she has had particularly on the Berkshires and MCLA’s theatre program, I was interested to find out more about Sara’s process and theatrical style. As a theatre artist, she defines her work as collaborative and mainly devised, as this is the style she utilizes most, even when following a given text. When discussing her process, Sara described that she generally follows the same scheme, but it always transforms based on the needs, scale, or extent of the project. She starts with an idea or a question. Sometimes these ideas are so relevant that they are inspired by the general climate of today’s society or politics; other times they are uncovered by something spontaneous and unexpected, such as listening to an interview on the radio. Sara says that ideas subconsciously come into the atmosphere all the time, and this is how some of the best work comes about.

One of her recent projects, Passage (2016), came to be in this way. She was on a drive to MCLA through the snow-ridden mountains one day and was listening to a Terry Gross interview with Anthony Brandt; in the interview, they were discussing Brandt’s book, “The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage”. While listening to this interview about struggle and conquest for the Northwest Passage, and simultaneously embarking on her own journey through the treacherous, snowy landscape of the Berkshires, the atmospheres began to merge, and an idea developed. Sara says that this is how a lot of her creations start off; “it starts with a seed that is planted”, she says, and this situation that she found herself in just happened to be the garden. After two years of development, this subconscious influence become much more than just that and entered reality, as seen by the complete production (To see photos and read more about Passage:

Sara then describes the next step of her creative process as one of immersing oneself in the world of the idea and collaborating with others to research, refine, and put together texts for the piece. However, she says that this part of the process is sometimes the most interesting because you start to notice how prominent the idea is around you, it’s just that you hadn’t noticed it until that moment of epiphany. “It is like when you buy a Kia Soul, and then you start seeing it everywhere”, she says (it is also important to note that Sara does, in fact, now own a Kia Soul). In this part of the process, all hands are on deck to create the rough outline that defines the idea and how it will be executed. “Everyone sort of finds their way into specific assignments for the project”, says Katzoff, working on areas of research, textual analysis, finding original documentation, and interviewing sources. This step of the development is generally the longest, but also transitions naturally into the next section: free-writing and adaptation of found text.

It is in this next step that the idea is refined, and the themes begin to develop from the resources that have been uncovered. When Sara and Kickwheel Ensemble were creating Passage, they were initially very intrigued by the outrageousness, but also drama of the stories of these people trying to find the Northwest Passage; this factor of the idea didn’t change, but the lens in which this part of the story is told through became clearer with more research. As they reached this stage, the main theme of the piece became about modern hubris in society and how this impacts people and their goals. Ultimately, the story developed into something much more complex than Sara could have imagined in her car that day driving through a blizzard in the Berkshires. This is how devised work comes to fruition, and it is a process of collaboration that gets everyone so intimately involved, which is why Sara loves to use it as a method in all her work.

It comes down to the fact that theatre, in its essence, is a live performance art that provides a unique experience to every viewer that experiences it. Katzoff truly harnesses this idea and applies it even to her work that has provided texts. In her most recent project, The Lathe of Heaven, a play that has been adapted from a 1971 dystopian science fiction novel, she worked similarly with the text. However, in her natural style, Sara utilized the method of collaboration with her cast and creatives to redefine the piece. The crew completely devised an entire song and movement aspect that had not been in the play prior and applied the concepts of the show to our current dystopian aspects of society to make it their own. “It is always important to connect to the world around you”, Sara says, and she utilizes this framework for everything she creates.

Now, Sara is working on several projects. In a return to the Berkshires this summer, she began to work on a new devised piece, a play about the story of Julia Pastrana, a Mexican performer who was ostracized because of a birth defect. Affected by hypertrichosis terminalis, Pastrana lived with straight black hair covering the entire surface of her body. Katzoff and her colleagues are interested in telling this story from a new lens. It is predominantly told from a white point of view, but they have gathered a team of several creatives of color, different ethnic and gender backgrounds, and identities to give the story new life. This show will likely be part of the revival of the Berkshire Fringe Festival in 2020, which has been on hiatus for the past few years. Additionally, Sara will be returning to MCLA as a guest director in Spring 2020, where she will be leading a cast and crew in producing The Laramie Project.

Altogether, the work of Sara Katzoff is defined by collaboration, inclusion, and necessity. She serves the communities that she is part of by producing critical and controversial work that will stimulate every part of their beings. She is devoted to creating a better world through her work and is striving to use her current piece about Pastrana as “a vehicle for horizontal leadership.” She is an innovative and inspiring theatre maker who is ahead of her time and generation, making her an example to follow. Like Rachel Chavkin and Liesl Tommy, Katzoff will no doubt be one of the future female movers and shakers of the theatrical thread of America.

For more information about Sara Katzoff, visit her website at:

About the Author:

Declan McDermott is a theatre artist with a passion for costumes, arts management, and performance. At the start of his career, Declan was primarily focused in acting, but soon began to explore other areas of the field. Now, Declan is a sophomore pursuing a dual major in Performing Arts: Theatre and Arts Management at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts with the hopes of utilizing the degrees to become an influential voice in the theatre industry. He is very interested in devised, original works, as well as movement-based theatre and how these styles can transform the landscape of live performance.

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2 opmerkingen

Dimitri Pollich
Dimitri Pollich
13 jun.



26 apr.

In my opinion, things are different. I have a different take on this matter that I would like to share.

fireboy and watergirl

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