AHRC Workshop Series:
Processes of Devising Composed Theatre

David Roesner (University of Exeter) 
Matthias Rebstock (Universität Hildesheim, GER)
16.-19. April (Exeter) and 14.-17. May 2009 (Hildesheim)

This workshop series was designed  to:

  • help outline a definition of Composed Theatre;
  • establish what the key characteristics of its creation processes are and what impact they have on the artistic outcomes;
  • provoke reflection on the consequences these processes have for our notions of composition, theatricality, creativity and dramaturgy;
  • stimulate further research and artistic activity within the group of participants and beyond and thus further scholarly and cultural progress.

Research Context

Since the beginning of the 20th Century it has been an ongoing interest of composers like Schönberg, Cage, Kagel, Aperghis, Schnebel, Tsangaris and Goebbels to approach the theatrical stage and its means of expression (voice, gesture, movement, light, sound, image, design) as musical material. The idea re-flourished amongst composers, directors and theatre collectives during recent developments towards “postdramatic” (Lehmann, Postdramatic Theatre, 2006) forms, which de-emphasised text, narrative and fictional characters, sought alternative dramaturgies (visual, spatial, temporal, musical), and focussed on the sonic and visual materialities of the stage and the performativity of their use. At the same time, musical composition has increasingly expanded its range of “instruments” to include live video, lighting-design, live sound electronics, costumes, and spatial arrangements, and has paid closer attention to the theatricality of the musical performer. Thus the interests in the musicality of the theatrical performance and vice versa the theatricality of the musical performance have given rise to a wide range of forms of literally and explicitly Composed Theatre. Research exists on earlier examples of this practice in the USA and particularly around the work of John Cage (Fetterman, John Cage’s Theatre Pieces, 1995; Kaye, Art into Theatre, 1996; Sanio, Alternativen zur Werkästhetik, 1999; Deuffert, John Cages Theater der Präsenz, 2001). However, this kind of work has been proliferated in more recent European and particularly German developments due to a unique theatre system and the specific funding and festival culture, both of which enable this kind of experimental work. This European strand is yet to be explored.

The Workshop Series

The workshop series initiated an important new discourse in this research field. While “works” that show the above characteristics have been discussed frequently (see for example Heile and Rebstock each on Kagel, Heiligendorff on Schnebel, Roesner on Goebbels) little academic attention has been paid to the processes that generate them. These are, however, particularly interesting to explore for two main reasons: a) it is the process, not the performance that distinguishes Composed Theatre from other forms and thus defines the field; b) the composition of theatrical media according to musical principles calls into question fundamental certainties about both musical composition and of music-theatrical production. Particular attention was paid to how those processes challenge ideas of authorship and collective creativity as well as hierarchical conventions (both between the art forms and the collaborators involved) and necessitate notions of intermediality and interdisciplinarity and the emergence of narrative and meaning in a non-narrative setting.

Research Questions

The key interrelated questions of the workshop series are: 

  1. What are the key characteristics of the devising process(es) of Composed Theatre?
  2. What are the significant differences of its creative process(es) in comparison to conventional practices of making music-theatre?
  3. How are authorship, dramaturgy, composition and notation redefined in these processes?
  4. How does Composed Theatre change our understanding of the interplay between music and theatre?

Aims and objectives

The main aim of the workshop series was to generate an international and interdisciplinary exchange between artists (composers, directors, performers, technicians) and scholars (musicologists, theatre scholars) in four complementary ways: workshops, provocations, interviews and round-table discussions.


Firstly we invited eight participants to individually present and exemplify their methods and approaches to devising Composed Theatre in two three-day workshops, These were fully documented audio-visually. As we are aiming to compare different approaches and ways to provide insight into the processes, methodologically the sessions took a range of forms to best reflect diverse practices: some were interactive, some became lecture performances, others presentations with visual support and footage from rehearsals and performances. These workshops required each participant to engage reflectively with his/her working methods and enable the group to explore, experience and compare the different models and approaches. With every workshop a richer notion of the range of approaches and their consequences emerged.


Secondly, we have asked four eminent artists and scholars in the field to contribute with provocations in addition to the practical sessions. The provocations will provide theoretical frameworks and act as methodological stimuli to the series. Freda Chapple, Heiner Goebbels, Roland Quitt and Manos Tsangaris have accepted our invitation and gave engaging talks at Exeter and Hildesheim. They are critically renowned and well-established artists-scholars who have bridged the gap of musical composition and theatre in exemplary ways for the past years and have thus defined and established the notion of Composed Theatre.

Question and Answer

Thirdly, the group of participants and guests from the wider academic and artistic community who attended the workshop sessions  engaged the presenter with questions after their session, which added a more dialogic dimension to the meetings.

Round-table discussions

The final part of both workshop meetings  were forum discussions, in which the group addressed the above research questions and the findings of the sessions, interviews and provocations and also exchanged views on future plans and possibilities for further research and collaboration.


Sharing the two workshops between the Department of Drama at Exeter and the collaborating faculty of “Cultural Sciences and Aesthetical Communication” at the Universität Hildesheim (GER) allows the series to achieve wider acknowledgement, participation and dissemination by building on the distinct but similarly fertile artistic and academic communities that exist in these two countries.


  • Cathie Boyd, Artistic Director Theatre Cryptic, Glasgow (www.cryptic.org.uk)
  • Johanna Dombois, director, (www.jhnndmbs.net)
  • Michael Hirsch, Composer (www.hirschmichael.de)
  • Jörg Laue, Artistic Director LOSE COMBO (www.lose-combo.de)
  • Jörg Lensing, Artistic Director Theater der Klänge Düsseldorf, (www.theater-der-klaenge.de)
  • Matthias Rebstock, Professor for Szenische Musik (Hildesheim) and artistic director of leitundlause(www.leitundlause.de)
  • George Rodosthenous, Composer/Director (www.leeds.ac.uk/paci/staff/staff_grodosthenous.html)
  • David Roesner, Principal Investigator, (www.spa.ex.ac.uk/drama/staffsite/roesner/welcome.shtml)
  • Nicholas Till, Post-Operative Productions (www.post-operative.org)
  • Demetris Zavros, Composer/Director

Provocations / Keynotes

Dissemination and Exploitation 

There are four forms of dissemination for the workshop series.

1) The workshops, interviews and provocations were open to the public and were advertised through SCUDD and www.theaterforschung.de to the relevant academic and artistic audiences. 
2) Both meetings have been fully audio-visually documented and edited into a series of DVDs by the archivist of Exeter Digital Archives, Peter Hulton. These DVDs are being made available to scholars, practitioners and students through the Digital Archives of both participating Universities (Exeter and Hildesheim). 
3) This website will function as a hub for further research in the field of Composed Theatre. It contains short video excerpts from the workshop series, links to relevant practitioners, a selected bibliography and a link to the google email group “Composed Theatre“, which you can ask to join. The website will be maintained by Matthias Rebstock and David Roesner and we welcome your input of material, links, texts, information etc. to make this a rich and useful resource.
4) Roesner and Rebstock are in the process of co-editing a book to ensure the widest possible dissemination of the outcomes. It will contain the provocations, approved transcripts of the group discussions and interviews and a co-authored academic reflection on the workshop series and its implications for the research community and cultural impact on the artistic field. 
The workshop series will be a strong stimulus for new research and new work in the area of Composed Theatre and will initiate and trigger new collaborations between the involved scholars and practitioners and beyond.