What’s in a name?
Of the seven contemporary theatremakers I spoke to for this piece, not one was happy with the term “documentary theatre” to describe their work. All had reasons for rejecting it: it felt too clinical, or they didn’t know what it meant, or they felt that other people were pursuing it more seriously and didn’t want to falsely lay claim to it. Marianne Weems, artistic director of the Builders Association, spoke for several artists when she confessed, “I don’t relate to the scholarly aspect of the field.”
And yet each of these artists is undeniably engaged in creating some kind of documentary theatre, meaning that they draw from factual source material to craft their work and tell engaging stories in direct conversation with our present reality. Above and beyond holding a mirror up to society, as all art is charged to do, these theatremakers are finding ties to specific communities and stories, proving the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction.
But as these original works often defy categorization, one of the biggest shifts in the contemporary landscape of documentary theatre is a rejection of the term itself.
Admittedly, it’s usually not a good idea to force labels onto contemporary artists’ work; one of theatre’s most vibrant joys comes from the raw experience of savoring each new work as an individual experience, with each creator adapting the tools and the terms of the form to suit their own vision. But for lack of a better encompassing word in a moment of shifting terminology, “documentary theatre” will serve in this article to describe works that locate themselves in proximity to each other on the contemporary theatre scene, even if the creators are not necessarily in dialogue.
Although the definition is as contested as the term itself, “documentary theatre” tends to describe theatre that wholly or in part uses existing documentary material as a source for the script, typically without altering its wording. This source material can come from interviews, newspapers, court transcripts, oral histories, etc. Alternative labels currently in circulation include “investigative theatre,” “verbatim theatre,” and “ethnodrama.”
“Investigative theatre” entered the lexicon thanks to the Civilians, a Brooklyn-based theatre company founded in 2001. Calling it “an artistic practice rooted in the process of creative inquiry,” the Civilians define it in their mission statement thus: “Investigative theatre brings artists into dynamic engagement with the subject of their work; the artists look outward in pursuit of pressing questions, often engaging with individuals and communities in order to listen, make discoveries, and challenge habitual ways of knowing. The ethos of investigative theatre extends into production, inviting audiences to be active participants in the inquiry before, during, and after the performance.”
Investigative theatre provides a little more leeway than “documentary theatre,” blurring the lines between factual documentation and artistic sensibilities in storytelling.
“Verbatim theatre,” as one might guess, is the practice of constructing a play from the speech of people interviewed about a given topic. Anna Deavere Smith’s work provides a seminal example. Understandably, this creative process presents a set of strict limitations on writers, which makes works of purely verbatim theatre few and far between.
Aaron Landsman’s most recent project, Perfect City, is hard for even him to define. He describes it as an artistic process of inquiry in which young adults are paid to gather once a week to think, talk, and make art over a span of 20 years, with the end goal of making our cities and our lives more equitable. He concedes that parts of his shows have been verbatim, though he and his co-creators edited the transcripts they were using. He insisted, “It’s not nonfiction. We used documentary editing choices, but I wanted us to own ‘we made this.’ I worry these labels make one think the show is objective or journalistic, or that because I conducted the interview I got the only ‘real’ story.”
Landsman developed his ethnographic approach under the tutelage of Gregory Snyder. When he interviews people for his theatre creations, he doesn’t take notes or record the conversations. Instead, he listens actively, returns home, and writes what he remembers. He then presents this accounting to the person whom he has interviewed for feedback, and often has the interviewee perform their own story in the show. “It’s amazing the way the mind works—what you remember, and connections your mind makes between ideas that might have come up at different points in the conversation,” Landsman said.
Methodologically, then, Landsman dabbles in verbatim theatre and ethnodrama, but uses neither label to describe his work.
What unites all these examples is a focus on the “real”—a multifaceted attempt to unearth bare truth through theatrical storytelling and engage audiences in meaningful conversation. The “documentary” label is apt not only because creators draw from documentary source material, but also because this theatre serves to document our time, in all its specificity and contradictions.
It may not be just the term that makes artists reluctant. The implication that a documentarian assumes responsibility for other people’s stories—and is some kind of arbiter or moral authority—is fraught in these times of increased social consciousness. Cultural appropriation is a cardinal creative sin, and artists are more aware than ever of the burden of responsibility that comes with telling other people’s stories. It’s no wonder, then, that they shy from that perception.
Travis Russ, founder and artistic director of New York City-based Life Jacket Theatre Company, recently presented part of his company’s upcoming work about sex offenders in Florida, America Is Hard to See, at New York University’s Forum on Ethnodrama. Though Russ has a background in ethnography, he is reluctant to put Life Jacket’s work in a particular box, insisting that he is not a journalist and avoiding clinical terms that might make audiences assume they’ll hear a lecture or history lesson at Life Jacket’s shows.
Said Russ, “Our goal is to tell a story and make it engaging; [journalists’] is to report facts and help readers draw conclusions based on the facts. We uncover truth, not just facts, which makes theatre different.” Several artists interviewed described a similar objective: access to essential human truths via “real” source material, all the while protecting their creativity, and disavowing presumed authority, by eschewing the documentary label.
Ideally, documentary theatre is more of an invitation to open a conversation with the audience rather than to teach them. The Builders Association in Brooklyn is currently developing several projects, one of which takes the idea of opening a conversation with the audience literally. In a new piece with the working title AYN RAND: Trauma Response, the first half will be a theatrical meditation on Rand’s life, the second half a house-lights-up discussion with the audience.
When the Builders tested the concept at the Performing Garage in SoHo earlier this year, Weems reported, the audience would not leave the theatre even after the discussion portion was over, they were so hungry for the opportunity to engage in dialogue in response to the work they had just seen. Particularly in light of much of the Tea Party Right’s idolization of Rand, the Builders Association is eager to delve deeper into her personal history and encourage a conversation with audiences.
Even in less overt forms of audience engagement, the relationship between actor and audience is often a key element of documentary thea-tre. In the case of Life Jacket’s America Is Hard to See, set to premiere at NYC’s HERE in January 2018, Russ is acutely aware that he’s asking actors to channel another real human being live onstage. “It is critically important for practitioners who make work based on real people and events to be clear with audiences on what is real and what is not,” Russ said.
Russ does not give his actors access to the transcripts or recordings of the interviews used to create the show. Instead, he explained, “I always want to know, as a human being, what [actors] can bring to the table and infer from what’s given.” Russ trusts that the verbatim speech in his script will provide enough material for the actors—and the audience—to unearth the truth of each character and empathize with them. When telling the personal stories of sex offenders, this empathic engagement is essential, as it gives audiences room to confront their own preconceptions and leave with more questions than they entered with.
Another way to approach the dividing lines between what is real and theatrical is to have the subjects of the show portray themselves onstage. Landsman, who describes his own work as “socially engaged art,” had audience members reenact real transcripts of city councilmembers’ meetings in his piece City Council Meeting, which he created with Mallory Catlett and Jim Findlay. Audience members were also encouraged to participate in the show, which has installed itself in local city councils from Bismarck, N.D., to San Antonio, Texas, Portland, Ore., and NYC. Sitting somewhere between performance and politics, City Council Meeting is a formal experiment in that it draws not only from source material but also real-life, present engagement. By blurring the distinction between politicians and citizens, audience members and participants, City Council Meeting is intended to spur a reconception of the limitations and opportunities for political engagement on a local level.
Liveness and personal engagement obviously distinguish documentary theatre from documentary film: Physical proximity creates an opportunity for more immediate engagement with the subject at hand. Both documentary film and theatre may set out to educate and motivate their audiences, but there is something necessarily more personal about the liveness of theatre.
Sam Green came sideways at documentary theatre from a background in film, and doesn’t use the term to describe his work; he prefers “live documentary” when presenting his work in a film-screening context, and “lecture performance” in the performance world. Green’s ouevre includes works on the Weather Underground, the Kronos Quartet, and R. Buckminster Fuller, in which he live-narrates a series of projected images, accompanied by live music. “Coming from the film world, liveness isn’t in the equation,” said Green. “It’s funny to be between the two, seeing through both eyes. But you can’t deny with these pieces that liveness gives the frisson. The energy in the room is a current running through it.”
Green is explicit in his desire to always be performing, not acting. He explained: “This form has antecedents in film history, before cinema became a popular form of public entertainment in the late 1800s. There was a huge lecture tradition in the United States, and in the early days of film, people did lectures with films.” Japan had a similar tradition called Benshi, used when American films were first screened there, in which narrators “would guide the audience through the film, sort of like a play-by-play sports announcer. Some Benshi narrators became very popular, sometimes even more famous than the films.”
When narrating his own live documentaries, Green is not interested in dominating the audience’s attention, but rather performing one role in the larger mechanism of the action onstage.
Perched on another edge of the form are the Neo-Futurists, an experimental company founded in Chicago in 1988. They have been eliding the difference between “performing” and “acting” for decades, and between fiction and reality as well. Their statement of purpose alludes to “strengthening the human bond between performer and audience” by “embracing a form of non-illusory theatre in order to present our lives and ideas as directly as possible. All of our plays are set on the stage in front of the audience. All of our characters are ourselves. All of our stories really happened. All of our tasks are actual challenges. We do not aim to ‘suspend the audience’s disbelief,’ but to create a world where the stage is a continuation of daily life.”
With their emphasis on indeterminacy and immediacy, the Neo-Futurists are feeding off the same human gravitation toward the “real” that draws us to documentary theatre. When a Neo-Futurist performs a scene from their life—from something as mundane as grocery shopping to something as momentous as a first declaration of love to their partner—an audience of strangers is granted access to a personal narrative typically reserved for close friends and family. As in a piece of verbatim theatre, audiences often regard material drawn from real life, whether it derives from the performer onstage or from unseen interview sources, with heightened reverence and empathy.
This October, the Neo-Futurists are scheduled to premiere Tangles & Plaques, a new work from their “Neo-Lab” created by ensemble member Kirsten Riiber and memory care therapist Alex Schwaninger, which attempts to demystify the experience of dementia through interviews and personal narratives about the life and death of memories. The Neo-Futurists, like many documentary theatremakers, discard the notion of suspension of disbelief, welcoming audiences with the full truth of themselves, absurd or difficult as it may be.
Clearly there is a widespread cultural interest in seeing and hearing “real” stories in our contemporary entertainment. “We learn about life through hearing other people’s stories,” said Russ. “We’ve seen a resurgence of podcasts; human storytelling events are thriving. We’re living in tumultuous times, and people want to learn what strategies people are using and emotions they are experiencing as a road map for their own lives.”
Green agreed: “People are hungrier for ‘the real.’ We’re all junkies, needing more and more emotional power in our culture, and real stuff is more powerful. When you’re really scared watching a movie, you say, ‘It’s only a movie,’ and that power goes away. But that power doesn’t go away with documentaries.”
Of course, wielding the power of “truth” can be a double-edged sword for artists who want to both do justice to their sources and build trust with their audiences. The hunger for the real—for “reality” TV, for StoryCorps podcasts, for fictional TV series “based on real events,” for documentary film—has been both sated and created by popular media. But this appetite swings both ways, as the more we know, the more we have to worry about—and the more we crave and take comfort in shared human experience. As our global perspective expands and in-person exchanges become rarer, our craving for interpersonal interaction intensifies. At its best, documentary theatre can feed our insatiable thirst for information as well as our need for something more personal, less quantifiable.
When Weems is asked, “Why theatre rather than film or other media?” she said she replies, “There’s still something to be said for creating spectacle. The pleasure of making and doing is still specific to live performance.”
Another opportunity afforded by the liveness presented by this kind of theatre is its vital application as a tool for activism, for speaking to the political tensions of the present moment. Socially engaged art can shine the spotlight on those in the margins, bringing their stories to a wider audience. The safe space created by the remove of the stage opens an opportunity for audience members to give increased consideration to stories they might otherwise avoid.
Moreover, the intimacy of live performance lets the audience feel they are in on the conversation simply by listening. “If I as an audience member know that the person being depicted onstage is real, I can’t deny their reality, story, or existence in the world,” said Russ. “It makes me lean in more, listen more closely, because maybe they’ll say something that helps me understand their world better, express my own thoughts and feelings better, or helps me learn about myself.”
Liza Jessie Peterson’s solo show The Peculiar Patriot depicts one woman’s experience visiting incarcerated family members. Though the characters in the play are all invented, Peterson based them on newspaper stories, prison reports, real prisoners’ stories, and her own experiences teaching in prison. Peterson wrote the show in 2003, at a time when, she said, theatres seemed “cagey” about presenting “politically, racially charged content, because it makes people uncomfortable.” So she toured it through 35 prisons across the country. Now, she said, “Mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex are in the zeitgeist,” pointing to the book The New Jim Crow and the documentary film 13th, which means that The Peculiar Patriot is “getting a different reception.” It’s slated to have its New York premiere at National Black Theatre Sept. 13-Oct. 1.
Peterson doesn’t use the word “documentary theatre” to describe her work, preferring just “theatre” or “political satire.” That said, her thorough research and unique perspective render The Peculiar Patriot a record of America’s prison-industrial complex, and opens up an empathetic conversation around the personal effects of having loved ones incarcerated. “When there’s social unrest, art—theatre—is most essential,” she said. “It gives people hope, language, what they can’t articulate, provides road maps, reflections, is a mirror and a lighthouse in dark times. Artists push culture forward.”
Kemi Ilesanmi is executive director of the Laundromat Project in New York City, which works with artists across multiple disciplines to create community-based art. Among the dozens of works the Laundromat Project has commissioned and presented since 2006, many projects draw source material from the local community to create conversations between neighbors. “We are always trying to follow the artists, shamans in this setting, to see what they are talking about, and what issues are they raising and questioning,” said Ilesanmi. She cited “the power of stories to be a site of resistance, a grounding for communities being displaced, or afraid of being displaced. The power of story amplifies and it’s important, because it helps shift narratives from the inside.”
The Laundromat Project has launched several youth projects collecting oral histories of elders from their communities, which is not just a way of preserving local history but also of changing the narrative these young people learn about what is possible and how they envision themselves in relation to those who came before. This expression of documentary theatre takes place in the streets and in community spaces, yet achieves the same truth-telling purpose.
“People of color have been figuring out how to do this [community engagement] work for such a long time, before it became the center of the academy,” said Ilesanmi. “The Laundromat Project will continue to really be able to invest and give artists the opportunity to be the creative change agents they can be in collaboration with their neighbors in a real genuine way. The challenges of the world keep reminding us this is something we need.”
As artists and citizens grapple with understanding, articulating, and reflecting the ever-shifting truth of the moment, documentary theatre continues to provide a platform for social, political, and personal exploration. Call it what you will—or just call it theatre.
Amelia Parenteau is writer and practitioner based in New Orleans.
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