Artistic Response – methods of theatrical co-creation


In the existing industry, a director who is well versed in his or her craft, and who has relevant stories to offer and good abilities to lead these visions into practice, is often enough.


For a long time, to interpret and develop the classic, as well as the new repertoire, formally and substantively, has been where the challenge lies. This approach is embedded in a hierarchical pattern where the playwright/director/and partly set designer have been the concept-developing artists. The task of the other artists has been to contribute to the already developed concept.



The collective art, the artistic collective – as for example seen in modern dance and the former Red Room at the Royal Danish Theatre – helps to point in new directions. So how to create directors who are good at facilitating processes where art/work are co-created and all involved parties’ skills and creative participation can take place?t


INTRO: The background for artistic response


One summer day in August 2009, I stood once again facing a bunch of actors who were waiting for what I might have to say about the new play we were going to do together: “Colder than here” by Laura Wade. It is a play about a fractured family coping with the mother’s cancer diagnosis.


As a director, it is expected that one has an interpretation and response to the entire universe that one is dealing with.


The reading takes place in the audience foyer at Team Teatret in Herning and the only lighting, apart from the light above from a pair of rounded domes, is just fluorescent lights that create almost the same chilly atmosphere as the hospital that the play’s main character has visited all too often. On the table there is coffee and pastries from the nearest bakery. 


I’m looking at the four expectant actors; the theatre manager who will play the father, two young girls who will play the daughters; someone I know from the school and a new one without an acting background, and an actress whom I have only heard about but never seen act, who will play the mother with cancer. So it is a collection of actors who have not previously met. I can already feel the recognizable lines being drawn. I bear a truth about the story, which at any time can be challenged. One becomes an invisible puppet-master where the strings can go haywire very easily. Although the play is interesting to me and I really want to tell this story, I feel a dislike for the inevitable discussions about the appropriate interpretations.



I do not know where it is coming from, but in the middle of the presentation, I say that I want them contribute to the development of the inner life and relationships between characters, and that it could be interesting if they contributed improvisational ideas. From day one, I want us to drain ourselves of all questions about the material. I have covered the walls with paper and we read scenes through one by one. Every time we are finished reading, we walk in silence up to the wall and write the questions we might have. We put them together – emptying us of the questions we may have about the script. Large or small – from faith and morning rituals to social circles and relationships to music preferences and life after death.



This is everything from: How long has she been ill? Does she have friends? Is he religious? How did they meet one another? I want to create a space where there are daily artistic responses to the questions; videos, musical elements, diary writing from a defined perspective, performative or improvisational studies, video recordings, installations, object studies, poetry writing and many other approaches. We answer rather simple questions with what we do best – artistic practice – instead of having a pseudo-psychological discussion club. 


I’m excited and so are the actors.


After this experience, I know that this is something I have to work with – I must share this with the students who are in the director programme.

“When it's interesting to address the phenomenon of leadership, this is due to the assumption that leadership plays a crucial role in the performance of the business. Developing leadership is thus about increasing the requirements for the business to appropriately and effectively identifying and fulfilling the objectives and tasks, which are its raison d'être. Leadership development is therefore not the development of leaders. Leadership development is the development of the enterprise’s management processes. The enterprise’s management processes are thus the focal point and shall designate the vital link between the management and organisation.”
Molin, Jan (2003) – Organisation og ledelse – i et udviklingsperspektiv "Leading capacity" Copenhagen Business School, Copenhagen

Molin writes in the above quote about leadership and leadership development, I am in my position responsible for the director programme at the Danish Performing Arts School, where I organise both the directors education and teach students. I encountered Molin’s text during my diploma programme in arts and cultural management.


The gap between the leadership role and the role of the teacher is not great in my eyes.


The director programme has long been characterised by teaching methods where the director’s role is seen as the top of the hierarchy. This education has been based on the director’s selection of dramatic material, analysis and concept development (often in collaboration with the set designer) is conducted by the director alone; it has been particularly Stanislavski-based methods that have been applied to text-based material. Anne Bogart’s devising and viewpoints methods and other performative approaches have been used for non-text-based performances. Both methods are so far good and useful and should be retained in the programme. But the methods position themselves in relation to each other. In the sense that one method creates a certain kind of theatre (institutional text-based dramatic arts) and the other a different kind (site-specific theme-based dramatic arts).

When Molin writes that “it is critical to business performance that leadership development takes place”, this is for me essential development in teaching towards creating a new collaborative practice in the director programme.


Instead of thinking people in a hierarchy, one can adopt the perspective that it is important that there is no hierarchy in the theatre between the different processes and media materials when these need to change. We must move toward a place where the text is not seen as paramount, or the law. The only thing that matters is that all media, all theatrical means, lighting, the space, the play, the text, the sound – that all theatrical means are developed simultaneously and in this way simultaneously strengthen one another, and can be made strong by the performer. It is a process that is being carried forward by the team as a whole, in that each person is trying to strengthen his or her area. Maybe only then is it possible to bring all of these things together; everything that comes later has only an illustrative role. It can only have a structural role, if it is included from the start.


These thoughts have given impetus to developing new teaching methods that are based on the following thoughts of Molin:

"A major showdown with the formal management thought is the idea of refraining from substance control. An alternative management law can thus be described as a framework and process control. In such a principle is the managerial challenge in risking letting go of supervision and direct influence on decisions and solutions. The management task is instead to create framework conditions and to facilitate initiatives for the development processes that extend the range of action for co-workers. The rule of thumb here is that the more content is ‘open’; the more you have to manage frameworks and processes. The more leaders leave analysis of assessments and decisions to groups of co-workers; the more they must provide and maintain clear, well-structured and authorised framework conditions for the work.”
Molin, Jan (2003) – Organisation og ledelse – i et udviklingsperspektiv "Leading capacity" Copenhagen Business School, Copenhagen

Framework forms the basis for the development of Artistic Response

After the experience at the Team Theatre, I started to teach artistic response, which has evolved over the last five years. The teaching is a combination of artistic response and a systematic reflection, which aims to qualify the materials developed towards staging the production. I have had many reflections on how – what I experienced in Herning – can be transformed into teaching, how I as a teacher can create conditions, that did not posit predetermined goals. Molin’s words on facilitating development processes that extend the range of action, have been key words in developing this new approach. I’ve also been very aware that it is essential to create very clear and well-structured frameworks.

The goal of the artistic response is to create a “first look” into a text that gives the team the possibility of discovering all of the imaginative, unpredictable and personal material that occurs when one has free rein. We take our starting point in the text’s themes, the relationships between the characters, the time in which the text was written, philosophical/ideological thoughts and the various readings of the basic conflict that existed in the text. The first step of the method is that the team read the text together. Then the team asks questions about everything one is allowed to wonder about the text. After the open brainstorming session an organisation of the questions takes place. The questions may be, for example, organised as follows:

The questions may be, for example, organised as follows:

  • Culture
  • Environment
  • Morals and Ethics
  • The place
  • Illness
  • Relationships
  • History
  • Characters
  • Spatial and physical
  • Philosophical Ideological
  • Factual/Scientific
  • Dramatic actions
  • Physical actions

All participants choose a question that must be answered. In artistic response, we are looking for how to create an answer that, as with the questions, does not close the text around itself but actually opens it even further. Instead of responding intellectually and linguistically, we choose to let the team answer the questions through a “small piece of theatre”. Followed by the organisation of the questions, we brainstorm the various kinds of ways in which a question can be answered. The point is, through these answers, to create theatrical material (which later can be used in the production). The participating artists should experience a more sensual and intuitive entry into space and characters. The opposite is when you start with the analysis that seeks logic rather than sensuousness.

The team explores the artistic answers together, documents them, reflects on them for potential in a later staging of the text, and in this encounter between the associative, more intuitive space and the tight space of the text, exciting theatrical art often arises. While the actors work with small short theatrical responses to the questions, the directors also work to answer questions through setting the framework for the major improvisations that they put on. Through the improvisations, the questions we wonder about are explored and through this they also become:
  • study of spatial concepts
  • exploration of the characters’ relationships and their emotional mechanisms’ logic (before and after the text starts and ends)
  • study of the physical language on stage
  • examination of the actor in different approaches to characters, for example, through imitation
  • study of audience interaction
  • study of dramatic images that are not proposed in the text
  • study of how video can be brought in as part of the text
Besides studying the text options, through the unpredictable and sensual improvisation space there is also a clear teaching in relation to fundamental improvisation technique in artistic response. It is important to consider how one brings the new experience into the text– so that one does not lose everything one has invented. There is also a clear collaborative benefit to this method, which is that the actors still contributes and feel like co-creative players, even though we are getting closer and closer to a final staging.

A significant part of the work is the common reflection on the developed materials: How can it be developed? What potential does it have? The challenge of developing improvisational material is to understand the potential beyond the immediate effect it has here and now. A key element in a director’s skills is to see what is; often the students also see what they think and respond to what the actors do, from a place where the actors do not recognise that they have produced.

Therefore, it is very important to reflect upon on the artistic materials that have been developed. In this, we also use meta reflections. For example, the actors get the opportunity to provide feedback on whatever their imagination brings up and what limits it in the framework set up by the directors.

“Correspondingly, managerial right, power or authority is not something you have (a thing to ‘hit’ others with), but something you get (by the way in which you form relations with others). Managerial work thus involves dual demands. On the one hand, it requires the individual to take on a behaviour to which he or she has no pre-given authority. And on the other hand, the individual must enjoy the necessary acceptance and respect without being in a position to claim it, but which others assign to him or her according to merits. Thus it is through clear and consistent managerial behaviour that the paradox dissolves. It is in the everyday processes that managerial work creates the foundation of respect and valued authority, that is the basis for being able to organize development processes that simultaneously stir the organization and challenge its self-knowledge.”
Molin, Jan (2003) – Organisation og ledelse – i et udviklingsperspektiv "Leading capacity" Copenhagen Business School, Copenhagen

When it succeeds most, the student achieves being awarded the respect Molin mentions in the above quote. I think that it is dependent on the actors feeling respected and challenged in a good way, in a space where they are heard and contribute within a clear framework to developing the material.

I have primarily used this method; artistic response, in collaboration between actors and directors. In future, I will continue working on having several groups participate in similar courses. I apply the method to my work with projects outside the school, and when there is an openness to co-creating. That is not found everywhere; in the worst case, it is experienced as the director’s lack of preparation and “do we need to do your work?”. I am therefore of the conviction that until a radical change happens in at least institutional theatres, it is always good to have a clear version of a production ready.

Students Comments on working with Artistic response

"Artistic response is my favourite working method of all. Primarily because as an actor I am allowed to be involved as an artist on a project to a FAR greater extent. I get to be more creative, more reflective and suddenly feel indispensable to a project. It's my feeling that everyone has a shared sense of being indispensable because you couldn't have made the exact performance you're creating without MY curly head and my curly ideas. It makes sense for EVERYONE in a creative process to feel indispensable. In addition, it creates an AMAZING framework for a trusting workspace where feedback methods are great tools to avoid hurting each other's feelings in an emotional and vulnerable process. In addition, I think the method is extremely modern and important for future Danish theatre. The method gives you the greatest ownership of a text or material. With this method, I feel like an actor, NEVER just an actor. I feel like an artist, a creator and important. That's important!"

Emma Sehsted Høeg

"A Master's degree in Artistic Response would be so obvious. In fact, a master's degree I would strongly consider taking, especially because I experience as an actor that through this method I can leave my mark and help create art and material in a performance context or other artistic context. I use this method a lot myself! In fact, always. As a creative actor, it's worth its weight in gold. It's a concrete and simple tool that, in my opinion, goes deeper than 'Openings' and other methods that speak to the same area. In other words, it's an important tool for both actor and director. I think the director can get answers to questions they never thought of or anticipated through this method, and it's really a great way to 'activate' the actor. So again, there needs to be a candidate in this area, and I hope it will also appeal to actors who have a director in them. It's a method that goes against the 'classic' ways of working in the industry, and of course that needs to change

Laura Skjoldborg

"Artistic response" has for me and the groups I have worked with been a unique tool and a method that has really opened up the creative work on the floor as an actor but also as a stage director. As an actor, it is a delight to have your own thoughts released on the floor, even if it may seem unresolved, but afterwards you have the feedback to pick up. When I participated in medealab, I fell in love with theatre and all the freedom that comes with it. to be able to pour out your creative power and bid through a shared material! There is room for that. To bid through. to break through. to investigate and create a fluid yet nuanced workspace where you look forward to getting up and or being invited up into other people's takes on the scenes, for example. We have created a common language, a common foundation, a bank and a beating heart for a joint project where everyone has been co-creating across disciplines. And then the social bond is strengthened and freedom grows. I think that's a good starting point for performing arts."

Marcus Gad Johannesen

"I was first introduced to Inger Eilersen's "Artistic response" method in the MEDEA lab course, where for the first time in my school days we had a programme that put the artistic BEFORE the craftsmanship. The method opens up and sends students to the floor BEFORE we have time to think. This means that our immediate thoughts, desires and pain points are thrown onto the floor before we can wrap them up or present them in a beautiful or polished way. The method has a dual effect; One material-forming and one educational, making it particularly suitable for schools. The method is used to develop material and, in its simplicity, it forces participants to act first and think/analyse as a group afterwards (an extensive feedback tool is included). But what also happens, in a learning context, is that it becomes clear to the learner what it is actually important to say, because you don't mediate or manipulate with your first input. It is precisely this first interjection that is the material, which we then analyse as a group. It's hugely empowering for a learner to understand what they're really passionate about telling. And the learner finds it themselves, because it's not a teacher dictating WHAT is important to say. This insight can be harder to achieve in, for example, Stanislavsky classes. Everyone I know from my school days who has been exposed to Artistic Response uses it repeatedly in their work, or variations of it. In a time of self-branding and target group analyses, I also see this method as a way to reclaim the importance and purpose of the artist. It is precisely through these experiments that art has its justification, and it is through experimentation that we find the art of tomorrow. We can be too preoccupied with selling tickets or personal popularity - artists are, by their very nature, often vain. This makes this methodology impossible in the best possible way. In interaction with Artistic Research, I see Inger's method as incredibly contemporary, a method that opens up the issues and stories that need to be told today, and I believe that this method, in a school programme with other more traditional approaches, will produce contemporary performing artists of the highest quality."

Camille Sieling Langdal

"The work with Artistic response, which I met in connection with Medea Lab, has had a fundamental impact on my work as an artist, artistic facilitator and stage director. I found that the work helped me find my artistic voice and interest because I created scenic material in a safe space over several rounds that was based on my own artistic vision and interest. There are few places in school where I've been asked for artistic responses that manifested physically in the space, and now that I'm on the edge of the industry, it's one of the things I'll miss the most. Trying out scenes, effects and interests in space in front of other artists and sharing our thoughts about it. One is what I learnt about my own process and interest by working with Artistic response myself. Another is what I learnt by following the other artists in their work. As a director, the work is very solitary and it was unique for me to see the methods of the other directors up close in a curious process. I find that the method has already spread throughout the industry and is being further developed in various ways. I myself have further developed what I learnt and discovered at Medea lab, and it has been essential for the co-creation we had on all parameters, especially on our graduation performance GOOD FOR NOTHING and on my and Emma's independent departure WELCOME TO PANDORA."

Jennifer Vedsted

A master's degree in Artistic Response would be so obvious. In fact, a master's degree I would strongly consider taking, especially because I experience as an actor that through this method I can make a mark and help create art and material in a performance context or other artistic context. I use this method a lot myself! In fact, always. As a creative actor, it's worth its weight in gold. It is a concrete and simple tool that, in my opinion, goes deeper than 'Openings' and other methods that speak into the same area. In other words, it's an important tool for both actor and director. I think the director can get answers to questions they never thought of or anticipated through this method, and it's a really good way to 'activate' the actor. So again, there needs to be a candidate in this area, and I hope it will also appeal to actors who have a director in them. It's a method that goes against the 'classic' ways of working in the industry, and of course that needs to change

Alexander Mayah Larsen