Devising in a natural context: the Giant’s Causeway

The second day in and around Belfast featured a trip to the Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage site composed of 40,000 interlocking basalt columns that have been formed over 60 million years of volcanic and geological activity. It’s a scenic ride up the coast from Belfast to the causeway, and after the work that we’ve been doing in urban landscapes, it was fantastic to spend the day in a natural setting. We worried about the weather, but Mother Nature was kind to us with lots of sunshine.

As stated above there are clear scientific explanations for the development of the causeway, but there are also myths and legends that explain the formations as well. Irish giant Finn McCool and Scottish giant Benandonner apparently had some disagreements. Finn tricked Benandonner into believing he was bigger than he actually was, and Benandonner fled back to Scotland, tearing up the causeway as he ran away. This is one version of the story.

Working on an applied theatre project in a new location requires that we get to know the culture of that place. When I talked with Jonathan about the Belfast leg of this course, I knew that I wanted the students to have the opportunity to work on some site-specific work outside of an urban environment. Given the richness of the stories of the causeway, I thought this would be the ideal opportunity to engage in some original creation.

Students were given about 90 minutes to walk around the causeway, and then the group reconvened. I then broke them into four groups of four and gave them devising parameters to create a short, site-specific piece somewhere on the causeway. The piece had to be presented in a way that established an intimacy for our group, so as not to infringe on the experiences of others at the causeway. However, that did not mean that other people might not begin to watch and take in what the performers were doing. The devising parameters were as follows:

1. Choose a specific location on or around the causeway for the performance of the piece. Allow that location to inspire the creation of the piece as well.

2. The piece must have a clear beginning, middle, and end.

3. Use the number 12, 6, or 4 in the piece in some way.

4. Include a moment of discovery.

5. Conjure something from the myth/legend of the causeway.

6. Use the following text from Othello, Act II, scene i:

"The great contention of the sea and skies parted our fellowship."

7. Make an offering of some kind to the place.

The groups worked for 45 minutes, and then we promenaded to each location to view the short performances. I felt a great sense of pride watching the work that the students created in this devising exercise, as they truly found ways to engage with the site as an artistic home, albeit for a short time, while using their own creativity to re-tell the story of the causeway, often with some very different twists from the “accepted” myths and legends. This raised some questions about other audience members potentially overhearing these stories and thinking they were “true.” However, myths and legends, in their re-telling, shift and change from one teller to the next. And the students’ creations really drove that point home.

Reminder: We have to think carefully about authenticity and responsibility to the place that we are working in. It’s why one of the devising parameters involved making an offering to the causeway itself. We can’t take the stories of a place or a community only for our own benefit or purpose. Hopefully, the work that we create can also give something back to that location or group of people that we’ve worked with as an artist in that community. Again, the notion of insider/outsider came to the forefront of the work, and students continued to make those connections for the remainder of the day.

Giant’s Causeway should be on any trip to Ireland, particularly Northern Ireland. It’s not necessarily as majestic as the Cliffs of Moher or some other sites, but there’s something quite magical about it. It inspired some memorable performances for me, and I feel that I know the location better than I did after my first time, because the students immersed me in the world through their creative engagement with place.

Below you can see some pictures of Giant’s Causeway and the students’ devised work, and click here for an almost 360 view from out on the causeway itself.