Among the most memorable pieces of documentary theatre I’ve ever seen transpired in a basement theatre in Moscow in 2012. A troupe of thirtysomething Russian hipsters had spliced bits of their own varied biographies into the lives of short-lived 1960s American rock icons Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison, and the result, titled Light My Fire, was roughly equal parts bewitching and disorienting. It featured some impressively precise lip-syncing to some classic-rock staples—no small feat in such an intimate space—and monologues in which the Joplin character recounted hitchhiking from Frisco to Texas, then pickling cucumbers with her mother; the actor playing the Hendrix character recalled playing his psychedelic guitar for “bandits” in Tashkent; and the Morrison stand-in concluded the familiar tale of the Lizard King’s indecent exposure in Miami with a line from a Russian children’s cartoon about Prometheus, in which the wayward god explained his signature theft of fire by saying, “I wanted to help mankind!” This fusion of pop culture to the mundane, American rock legends to contemporary Russian realities, made all ingredients in the mixture feel fresh, sharp-angled, alive.
The company housing this unlikely hybrid work was Teatr.doc, a troupe known for heavy-hitting political documents like September.doc, about the bloody Beslan hostage crisis in 2004, or One Hour Eighteen, which offered a stark account of the death of a whistle-blowing lawyer while in prison. (The name of that murdered jurist, Sergei Magnitksy, has resurfaced in our politics in a way no one could have imagined five years ago, as Russia’s leadership, stung by sanctions in the wake of Magnitsky’s killing, sought and apparently gained some influence with our own administration in an effort to overturn them, among other wish-list items.)
While Teatr.doc, which has been a reliably stalwart if tiny opposition force against the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin (another notorious piece there, BerlusPutin, analogized the Russian president’s corruption to that of Italy’s erstwhile “bunga bunga” playboy), has kept at its valiant mission of resistance in the face of eviction and state pressure; and while our own country has drifted considerably closer, both literally and dispositionally, to the autocratic Russian model, I think back on Light My Fire and wonder: Does theatre have a journalistic role to document, to bear witness, to stanch the bleeding of reality into fiction (and vice versa) that is one troubling hallmark of our “truthy” age?
Yes is one answer, as stories in this issue about documentary theatre in the U.S. partly make clear. But as the free association of Light My Fire reminds me, the better answer is yes, and: Theatrical forms oughtn’t be constrained by their subjects, or by their responsibility to reality, but inspired by them to create a truer reflection than a mere document might. Whether it’s the searing humanist mimicry of Anna Deavere Smith, whose entire speech at last year’s TCG National Conference is reproduced in this issue, or the collaborative testimonials of Ping Chong’s Undesirable Elements, or meticulously researched historical plays like Emily Mann’s Execution of Justice (the first playscript ever published in this magazine, in 1985), what theatre brings to the quest for truth is not Olympian objectivity but radical subjectivity, irreducible presence. Documentary theatre’s mirror up to nature is a multifaceted one, perhaps even a smashed one, through whose shards a clearer picture may emerge. As Jimi Hendrix sang in “Room Full of Mirrors”: “I take my spirit and I crash my mirrors / Now the whole world is here for me to see.”
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