27 September 2017

"On The Real: Documentary Theatre"

Articles 5 – 7
[I’m doing something a little different with Rick On Theater  the rest of this month.  When the September issue of American Theatre magazine came out, I saw that there was an article on documentary theater, which, as ROTters know, is a subject of interest to me.  (See my article “Performing Fact: The Documentary Drama,” posted on 9 October 2009.)  I figured I’d republish the AT piece in an upcoming slot on the blog.  When I went to the AT website to download the article for my files, I found that there wasn’t just one article but a series; the others weren’t all published in the magazine’s print edition.  There are seven articles, three of them too short to run alone so I combined them.  So I have a series of five potential posts about documentary theater.  I’ve decided to shorten the gap to three days between posts (as I often do for related pieces), and post all five selections in a row starting today, 15 September.   The only other time I republished a bunch of pieces together like this was a series of six open letters on theater by Washington Irving I ran in August 2010.
[The overall on-line reference for all seven documentary theater articles is on the American Theatre [Theatre Communications Group; New York] website dated 22 August 2017, http://www.americantheatre.org/category/special-section/on-the-real-documentary-theatre (which has links to the separate articles).  The individual articles and the dates on which I’ll post them (under the blog heading “On The Real: Documentary Theatre,” the series’ umbrella title) are as follows: “A History of U.S. Documentary Theatre in Three Stages” by Jules Odendahl-James, 15 September; “Ringside? Let’s Take Down the Ropes” by Anna Deavere Smith, 18 September; “Real Talk About Real Talk” by Amelia Parenteau, 21 September; “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Documentary Theatre?” by Parenteau, 24 September;  “A Room Full of Mirrors” by Rob Weinert-Kendt, 27 September; “‘Foreign to Myself’ Delves Beyond the Trauma of War” by Brad Rhines, 27 September;  and “Our Reflection Talks Back” by Carol Martin, 27 September.]


By Brad Rhines

For all its heightened relevance and accountability, documentary theatre can’t be constrained by its subject.

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 [see Article 2 in this series, “Ringside? Let’s Take Down the Ropes,” 18 September], 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.”

[Rob Weinert-Kendt is editor-in-chief of American Theatre. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Back Stage West and writes about theatre for the New York TimesTime Out New York, and the Los Angeles Times. He studied film at the University of Southern California and is a composer member of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop.]

*  *  *  *
By Brad Rhines

Goat in the Road’s devised piece braided two veterans’ stories into an examination of identity and homecoming.

Big drama can come from small moments. It’s not exactly a revolutionary idea, but for Chris Kaminstein, co-artistic director of Goat in the Road Productions (GRP) in New Orleans, it’s a notion essential to the ensemble’s newest devised work, Foreign to Myself, which premiered at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans in last May.

Kaminstein calls Foreign to Myself a “war play,” the kind of work examined by American Theatre in a recent “Theatre of War” issue [vol. 34, no. 3 (March 2017)]. In that issue, Bart Pitchford’s essay “Worst Case Scenarios: A New Canon of Military Plays” looked at work that he says “oversimplifies a complex situation,” referring to plays that often center on a PTS-addled combat veteran struggling to reintegrate into civilian life. Plays about war, Pitchford argued, can—and should—do more in their portrayals of veterans, and he offered his article as “the opening salvo in what I hope to be an ongoing and generative exchange.”

When Kaminstein first encountered Pitchford’s article, he was putting the finishing touches on Foreign to Myself. As the show’s director and lead writer, Kaminstein acknowledged the challenge of creating an authentic war play that avoids the pitfalls Pitchford outlined.

“War plays are genre plays, and the genre has certain demands,” reasoned Kaminstein. “In certain ways I think [in Foreign to Myself] we are pushing the idea of making the everyday and ‘undramatic’ extraordinary, and in some ways I think we’ve given in to the demands of the genre.

“I don’t say that with regret,” he continued. “But the path to that place is pretty interesting.”

With Foreign to Myself—an unconventional work inhabiting a sparse, smartly designed stage set—Kaminstein and his co-creators took a multi-angled look at the veteran reintegration narrative, while also examining how that narrative can get processed and distorted by civilian society.

The through line of Foreign to Myself is the story of Alex, a woman recently returned home from serving in Afghanistan as a driver and mechanic in the Marines. Alex is caught between worlds, feeling isolated from the best friend she left behind and struggling to adjust to the mundanity of civilian life—particularly as she’s pressed into service as a member of her sister’s upcoming wedding.

Alongside this relatively straightforward story is a parallel narrative regarding real-life war hero Charles Whittlesey, an American officer in World War I whose “Lost Battalion” suffered significant losses while battling German troops in France’s Argonne Forest.

Foreign to Myself has some fun with Whittlesey’s hero narrative, one moment reimagining the narrative as a present-day action flick complete with a Top Gun-style soundtrack, the next engaging in improv comedy-style riffing on Whittlesey’s famous line, “You can go to hell!”—supposedly shouted in response to a German demand to “surrender or die” (proposed alternate takes included, “Option two, motherfucker!”).

The truth of Whittlesey’s situation, as told in more straightforward scenes in the play, is less cinematic. Whittlesey bristles at his reputation as a hero, unable to reconcile his public perception with his private anguish, and he eventually takes his own life.

By delving into the story of Whittlesey, Foreign to Myself explicitly engages some of the expectations audiences might carry into a play about war. But it also provides a foil for the less conventionally dramatic story of Alex, who struggles to write a toast for her sister’s big day, complains to her friends back in Afghanistan about having to wear a dress to the wedding, and begrudgingly considers signing up for “horse therapy” to help work through the difficulties of returning home.

In this way, Foreign to Myself uses Alex’s story to address issues that Pitchford, in “Worst Case Scenarios,” calls “relatively unexplored,” including women in combat, veterans’ access to healthcare, the toll that deployment can take on family and loved ones, and the “chasm in communication between the military and civilian worlds.”

“The genre of war plays and war movies is pretty extensive,” conceded Kaminstein. “Everyone’s done one. The question at the beginning was, how do we do it differently?” The answer, he said, was creating a play that isn’t really about “trauma with a capital T.”

“It’s more like identity and homecoming,” explains Kaminstein. “How do you find your identity in a civilian context once you get back? We wanted to avoid doing super-enormous dramatic scenes of war. We wanted to try to focus on the daily grind and making that dramatic.”

To get beyond the worst-case scenarios, the show’s creators delved deep. They spent nearly two years interviewing veterans (including friends and relatives) about their experiences; they talked to playwrights like KJ Sanchez (ReEntry) and Jeff Key (The Eyes of Babylon); and they dove into books like Helen Thorpe’s Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War. [Sanchez and ReEntry are discussed in Article 3 of this series, “Real Talk About Real Talk” by Amelia Parenteau, posted on 21 September. Key’s The Eyes of Babylon was workshopped in 2005 at the Tamarind Theatre in Hollywood, California, and had played around the U.S. and abroad. Soldier Girls was published by Scribner in 2014.]

They also worked with health care professionals, including Gala True, a social scientist whose research involves health services for vulnerable populations, particularly veterans. True co-authored a paper titled “Warring Identities: Identity Conflict and the Mental Distress of American Veterans of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan” [Society and Mental Health Vol 4, Iss. 2 (2014)] that Kaminstein said was particularly impactful—and even gets quoted in the show’s program.

“We realized that we could do this in a way where there’s only one moment—one explosion or traumatic incident—and the rest of the play is really about the other part of this person’s life, about the complexity of being a person,” said Kaminstein.

Through a series of workshops, the ensemble’s core writing team (co-artistic director Shannon Flaherty and ensemble members Darci Fulcer, Denise Frazier, Leslie Boles Krause, and William Bowling) pulled together disparate pieces—chunks of interviews, character sketches, potential storylines, ideas for choreography—and then Kaminstein went off to write the first draft of the play, though he’s quick to disclaim full authorship.

“At some point someone has to go and wrangle with it,” said Kaminstein, acknowledging his role in shaping the piece. “But this is the most collaborative process for us in terms of the amount of input from the ensemble.”

With script in hand, the cast gathered for a read through. Once they were all on the same page, they dropped the scripts and improvised each scene as Kaminstein recorded the action. From those improvisations, he rewrote nearly the entire thing.

The end result is a devised work that exposes its mechanics: Actors routinely break the fourth wall to address the audience or explain what’s happening in the play, and scene styles vary from naturalistic drama to experimental sound and movement. But throughout it retains an organic, lived-in quality that highlights the humanity both at the heart of the work and at the heart of the ensemble that brought it to life.

“When we first started the project, we were curious about how to approach the material in a different way than people had approached it before,” said Kaminstein. “I’m not sure if we succeeded or not, but we certainly approached it in the way that’s closest to us.”

[Brad Rhines, an arts writer and critic based in New Orleans, was raised in South Jackson, Mississippi, and currently lives and works in New Orleans. His work has appeared in NOLA Defender and Gambit Weekly, among other publications.]

*  *  *  *
By Carol Martin

In the digital post-truth era; theatre of the real doesn’t just dramatize change—in some case it embodies it.

In our post-truth era, theatre artists are creating work in which part of the subject is theatre’s very ability both to represent and interpret events. They are using theatre techniques outside of theatre to stage work that aims to change not only political convictions but also legal determinations. Artists are making work that raises questions about the relationship between our perceptual preferences and our ethical choices. Like the proscenium within the proscenium in Paula Vogel’s Indecent, a play about a real-life play [Broadway production at the Cort Theatre, 18 April-6 August 2017], some of the best theatre today reflexively looks at its own ability to see and stage complex interpretations of challenging subjects.

Similar to Hamlet’s hope that Claudius would see himself in “The Mouse Trap,” this theatre holds a mirror up to our violence, politics, and despair and even to theatre itself. More than documentary, the results are provocative analyses of the events represented and the very act of representation.

Swiss theatre director Milo Rau, for example, created Five Easy Pieces in 2016 using Belgian pedophile and murderer Marc Dutroux as the pivot for telling the history of Belgium, from the Congo’s declaration of independence to “The White March” in October 1996, when upwards of 275,000 people outraged at the failures of both the justice system and the police marched on Brussels. That Dutroux was released after being arrested sparked outrage. He was finally convicted and imprisoned in 1996. The demonstration was called “The White March” because people carried white objects as a symbol of hope.

In Five Easy Pieces, seven children play the parts of Dutroux, his victims, their parents, and a policeman. Letters from a girl named Sabine Dardenne to her parents while Dutroux held her hostage, starved her, and sexually assaulted her are read by one of the child actors. Political accountability and theatrical culpability shadow the very notion of child actors narrating the story of a murdering pedophile. During rehearsals, psychologists were on hand to ensure the wellbeing of the children and their parents.

Spectators have to continually readjust their understanding of what is real in ways that produce critical responses and political revelations. In his review, critic Andrew Haydon characterizes the latter as the realization of a similarity “between the narcissistic desires of a child murderer and pedophile, and those of an imperialist power; the arrested development of a mind, or a culture, that allows it just to say ‘I want’ and to take that thing and keep it in captivity.” In its reflexive turn, the work’s use of children to enact such a subject does not deny the possibility that even making the work might somehow be wrong. “And in the background we have the specter of European colonialism, and of child rape and murder.”

Five Easy Pieces is both live and mediatized. The stage action is captured by live-feed cameras and projected on a large upstage screen. The title is taken from Stravinsky’s “Five Easy Pieces,” which he designed to teach children to play the piano. In Rau’s rendering, the children have to master mimicry, submission, emotion, and grief. “Our fifth lesson is rebellion,” explains Rau, “a rebellion that is poetic and allegorical.” As the founder of the International Institute of Political Murder (IIPM), whose work uses testimony and the reconstruction of real events, Rau sees Five Easy Pieces as an allegory for how we deal with trauma. “It’s not a documentary play,” Rau asserts. (See Debra Levine’s “Critical Act” about Five Easy Pieces in TDR 236, 2017 November).

In Landscape as Evidence: Artist as Witness (2017), Delhi director Zuleikha Chaudhari staged fictional proceedings in a court room setting to make a case for the judicial usefulness of artistic knowledge and theatrical techniques in extra-theatrical circumstances. In collaboration with Khoj Studios, an international artists association, Chaudhari wrote a petition to India’s Parliament requesting that it consider admitting the testimony of artists in the courts, much the same as the testimony of economists, historians, doctors, industrialists, politicians, and lawyers is admitted. Her case in point: the destruction of the environment. In her petition she asserts that “the Environmental Impact Assessment does not consider issues of displacement, loss of culture and damage to sacred sites; it reduces the consideration to a cost benefit analysis.”

Why shouldn’t artists be called upon to give testimony from the vantage point of their specialized knowledge, Chaudhari reasons? She documents the loss accumulated by the National River Interlinking Project (NRIP), a reservoir, dam, and canal system stretching across several central India states, created to capture monsoon rains. Quoting Mihir Samson, a portion of the petition reads:

When an ecosystem endures the loss or extinction of an indigenous species or plant, it is not just the tiger or the native wheat variety, which has been annihilated. What has been destroyed is the tiger’s contribution to the ecosystem in maintaining a balance with other species, the native crop’s ability to nourish the human language, and its relationship to the tiger and the complex food culture surrounding the native wheat involving song, dance, spirituality, and countless other facets of the ecosystem’s bounty. This is the subtlety, nuance, and intricacy, the Petitioner entreats, that art captures better than other medium or piece of scientific or anecdotal evidence.  

For Chaudhuri and Khoj Studios art and law are both sites for the production of truth and reality, the assembly of narratives, the assertion of historical frames of reference, and the articulation of different visions of the present. Chaudhuri smartly staged the fictional trial at New Delhi’s Constitutional Club of India, where members of Parliament and bureaucrats regularly gather to discuss matters of public interest. She cast Yatindra Singh, former Chief Justice of the Chhattisgarh High Court, as the judge and Anand Grover, a senior activist lawyer performed the Lawyer for the State and Norma Alveres, an eminent environmental lawyer, as the lawyer for the petitioners. The performance followed such courtroom rituals as rising for the judge, taking oaths, and other protocols.

The first of three artist witnesses, Ravi Agarwal, showed portions of his film Have You Seen the Flowers as evidence for how people along the Yamuna River grew marigolds in an environmentally sustainable way. When asked if he was speaking as an “artist or an ordinary citizen,” Agarwal replied, “I am an artist because I am a citizen. There is no difference between the two. My art is just a method for talking about issues that I strongly feel about.” For Chaudhuri, art is both caveat and catalyst: “It can disarm frameworks of certainty by insisting on the ethical and epistemic vitality of the intimate, the desired, and the imagined. By doing so, it acts as a caveat to what people think of, or take for granted, as the ‘real.’ Equally, art can also provoke and call into being entirely new frames for constructing meaning. Here it acts as a cata­lyst. We are free to imagine other worlds because we engage closely with this one.”

Chaudhuri and her colleagues convinced the Chief Justice to agree that artists and their work should be admissible as evidence especially when “created in conjunction with the communities living in areas affected by such development projects,” and that such testimony “must be considered as proper evidence and not mere opinion.” As Chaudhuri summed it up, “The hearing has been made in the context of a performance, so it is interesting to see what validity the judgement has in the real world. The [real] conclusion remains a question.”

Theatre of the real—that is, theatre about real events—is relevant here. Documentary theatre, verbatim theatre, reality-based theatre, theatre of fact, theatre of witness, tribunal theatre, restored village performances (think of the well-researched performances at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass.), battle reenactments, and autobiographical theatre are among what has grown into a staggering oeuvre of practices and styles expressing a vast diversity of subject matter. The wide-ranging nomenclature and methods indicate the richness of artistic invention and the depth of scholarly inquiry. Rau and Chaudhuri’s work are just two examples of the radical expansion of subject matter, theatrical techniques, and potential real world resonance and results this kind of theatre has wrought. Faced with today’s trend of emotion and belief holding sway over facts, of the difficulty of apprehending truth, and of a preference for exegesis, these artists are making performances that neither literally represent the real nor invent it, but strive to comprehend it.

Legal theorist Richard Sherwin notes that visual images, YouTube, video, photographs, and amateur videos shot by conventional and smartphone cameras and even court records are used both to prove and to contradict legal testimony. Technology can no longer function as verifying a particular point of view. Interpretation is a constant variable. This state of affairs gives rise to certain questions: Does documentary theatre have a unique obligation to present the details of policy, for example, when its narrative is political? Should artists be obliged to present dialectical argument and counter-argument? Can documentary theatre, with its special relationship to the narrative structuring of emotion, become a model of inquiry?

In the 21st century, theatre of the real, including documentary theatre, has several defining characteristics, including the particularization of subjectivity, the rejection of a blanket universality, an acknowledgment of the contradictions of staging the real within the frame of the fictional, and questioning the relationship between facts and truth. Increasingly documentary theatre includes the difficulty of finding out the truth as part of its subject matter.

Troubled epistemology is not new to theatre. Digital documents form part of our neural dreams. We live in in a world populated with shadows, suspended between the virtual and the real. Podcasts become memories, film and theatre become history. The difference between waking and sleeping, between being live and being recorded, between being present and being a projection of presence, is collapsing.

The entanglement of the live and the digital in relation to the documents presented onstage demands an audience willing to collaborate in the construction of meaning as a vital part of the production. Site-specific performances, mixes of biography, autobiography, and documentary, fiction and nonfiction, film, visual arts, dance, theatre, and performance art are merging. As the digital world becomes the means of documentation, documentaries become much more than records. Even when absolute conclusions cannot be had, understanding itself is still a generative act.

To account for this world and master it, artists are building new patterns of knowledge to make reality whole again.

Carol Martin is a Professor of Drama at New York University. Her books include Theatre of the Real, Dramaturgy of the Real on the World Stageand Dance Marathons of the 1920s and 1930s. She is the Guest Editor of the forthcoming issue of TDR “Reclaiming the Real” and the 2006 TDR issue “Documentary Theatre.” A PhD scholarship at UNSW [University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia] is named for Martin’s groundbreaking work on theatre of the real. In July she gave two keynotes in Hong Kong at the first documentary theatre conference in Asia. She is the general editor of In Performance, a series of books devoted to international plays and performance texts with work from Poland, Turkey, Japan, Germany, China, Egypt and the U.S.

24 September 2017

"On The Real: Documentary Theatre"

Article 4
[I’m doing something a little different with Rick On Theater  the rest of this month.  When the September issue of American Theatre magazine came out, I saw that there was an article on documentary theater, which, as ROTters know, is a subject of interest to me.  (See my article “Performing Fact: The Documentary Drama,” posted on 9 October 2009.)  I figured I’d republish the AT piece in an upcoming slot on the blog.  When I went to the AT website to download the article for my files, I found that there wasn’t just one article but a series; the others weren’t all published in the magazine’s print edition.  There are seven articles, three of them too short to run alone so I combined them.  So I have a series of five potential posts about documentary theater.  I’ve decided to shorten the gap to three days between posts (as I often do for related pieces), and post all five selections in a row starting today, 15 September.   The only other time I republished a bunch of pieces together like this was a series of six open letters on theater by Washington Irving I ran in August 2010.
[The overall on-line reference for all seven documentary theater articles is on the American Theatre [Theatre Communications Group; New York] website dated 22 August 2017, http://www.americantheatre.org/category/special-section/on-the-real-documentary-theatre (which has links to the separate articles).  The individual articles and the dates on which I’ll post them (under the blog heading “On The Real: Documentary Theatre,” the series’ umbrella title) are as follows: “A History of U.S. Documentary Theatre in Three Stages” by Jules Odendahl-James, 15 September; “Ringside? Let’s Take Down the Ropes” by Anna Deavere Smith, 18 September; “Real Talk About Real Talk” by Amelia Parenteau, 21 September; “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Documentary Theatre?” by Parenteau, 24 September;  “A Room Full of Mirrors” by Rob Weinert-Kendt, 27 September; “‘Foreign to Myself’ Delves Beyond the Trauma of War” by Brad Rhines, 27 September;  and “Our Reflection Talks Back” by Carol Martin, 27 September.]


By Amelia Parenteau

Stage works based on real material range so widely that about all they have in common is their makers’ aversion to labels.

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 [Program in Educational Theatre at New York University’s Steinhardt School, 21 and 22 April 2017]. 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 [5 October 2017, PRELUDE Festival; Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, Graduate Center of the City University of New York], 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 theatre. 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 [performed at HERE in 2011 and 2012, Houston in 2012, and Tempe, Arizona, in 2013], 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 [12 October-18 November 2017, Chicago], 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 [Godfrey C. Henry; Xlibris, 2005] and the documentary film 13th [2016 documentary by director Ava DuVernay], 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 

[The print version of this article, in vol. 34, no. 7 of American Theatre, is entitles Truth, Not Facts.

[Parenteau defined all of her alternatives to “documentary theater” except one: ethnodrama.  As it’s not a term I’d encountered before, I went in search of a definition.  Finding a satisfactory one wasn’t easy, it turned out.

[The symposium the author mentions above, NYU’s Forum on Ethnodrama, says ethnodrama is “the practice of creating a play script from materials such as interview transcripts, field notes, journal entries, and/or print and media artifacts.”  But that’s no more than a general definition of documentary theater.  Besides, this definition merely describes the form’s methodology, shared widely by pretty much all types of documentary performance.  What makes it “ethno”?  The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods, an on-line reference work, describes ethnodrama as “the written transformation and adaptation of ethnographic research data (e.g., interview transcripts, participant observation fieldnotes, journals, documents, statistics) into a dramatic playscript staged as a live, public theatrical performance.”  I suspect that’s accurate, but it’s so loaded with jargon and academic-sounding terms, I can’t unpack it.  It may be correct, but it's useless.

[A website called Medanth (for Medical Anthropology) says: “Ethnodrama is an arts-based methodology for presenting participants' personal stories which are often centered on social issues and traumatic, or significant, events.”  That seems to be getting closer; the “personal stories” distinguished the form from run-of-the-mill documentary theater.  (Ethnography, a branch of anthropology, is, after all, the scientific study of people and cultures.)  From the examples Parenteau presents in her article, it sounds as if the researching and enacting of “personal stories” is the key distinction of ethnodrama.]

21 September 2017

"On The Real: Documentary Theatre"

Article 3

[I’m doing something a little different with Rick On Theater  the rest of this month.  When the September issue of American Theatre magazine came out, I saw that there was an article on documentary theater, which, as ROTters know, is a subject of interest to me.  (See my article “Performing Fact: The Documentary Drama,” posted on 9 October 2009.)  I figured I’d republish the AT piece in an upcoming slot on the blog.  When I went to the AT website to download the article for my files, I found that there wasn’t just one article but a series; the others weren’t all published in the magazine’s print edition.  There are seven articles, three of them too short to run alone so I combined them.  So I have a series of five potential posts about documentary theater.  I’ve decided to shorten the gap to three days between posts (as I often do for related pieces), and post all five selections in a row starting today, 15 September.   The only other time I republished a bunch of pieces together like this was a series of six open letters on theater by Washington Irving I ran in August 2010.
[The overall on-line reference for all seven documentary theater articles is on the American Theatre [Theatre Communications Group; New York] website dated 22 August 2017, http://www.americantheatre.org/category/special-section/on-the-real-documentary-theatre (which has links to the separate articles).  The individual articles and the dates on which I’ll post them (under the blog heading “On The Real: Documentary Theatre,” the series’ umbrella title) are as follows: “A History of U.S. Documentary Theatre in Three Stages” by Jules Odendahl-James, 15 September; “Ringside? Let’s Take Down the Ropes” by Anna Deavere Smith, 18 September; “Real Talk About Real Talk” by Amelia Parenteau, 21 September; “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Documentary Theatre?” by Parenteau, 24 September;  “A Room Full of Mirrors” by Rob Weinert-Kendt, 27 September; “‘Foreign to Myself’ Delves Beyond the Trauma of War” by Brad Rhines, 27 September;  and “Our Reflection Talks Back” by Carol Martin, 27 September.]


By Amelia Parenteau

Some of documentary theatre’s leaders discuss the art of the interview—and the deeply personal play-making that comes after.

To find out more about the practice and implications of documentary theatre, I gathered some of the field’s veterans for a frank conversation about their craft, how it’s changed—and how it’s changed them. I found, of course, that they were aware of each other’s work. How could they not be? With the Civilians, Steve Cosson directed and helped create This Beautiful City and The Great Immensity; Leigh Fondakowski served as head writer on Tectonic Theater Project’s The Laramie Project, and most recently unveiled Spill at New York City’s Ensemble Studio Theatre; KJ Sanchez, who with American Records created such shows as ReEntry and X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story), is working on a commission from the Guthrie Theater about recent immigrants to the Twin Cities; and Ping Chong continues his ongoing Undesirable Elements, which began in 1992, with a project with teens facilitated by NYC’s New Victory Theater.

Amelia Parenteau: What drew each of you to this form?

Steve Cosson: My introduction came in graduate school in San Diego, where I was a student of Les Waters. Les had been a member of Joint Stock in London in the ’70s and ’80s. We picked a subject and everybody found somebody to interview. It’s been described as a Truman Capote/In Cold Blood style, where you talk to someone and listen to everything they say and write it down as best as you can. We certainly didn’t talk about it as documentary theatre; it was a way of working and generating material. I got hooked on the challenge of it. It spoke to my intrinsic nosiness. I loved that there was an excuse to walk into a stranger’s home and be a listener for them. I discovered that people will tell a lot to a stranger. And my first group of interviews were extraordinary. My subject was very rich people, and they completely blew any preconceived ideas out of the water. I realized the world is a more complicated place where the possibility for discovery is endless.

KJ Sanchez: I was making this work before I realized there was a name for it. In 1992, when I was graduating from UC San Diego, my thesis solo show was about my hometown, Tome, New Mexico. It was founded by my ancestors in 1680 and nobody had ever left. As I was growing up, there was a feud over the rights to this land that everyone had communally shared since 1680. Everyone started suing everybody, children sued parents, brothers sued brothers, my grandfather died not speaking to his brother for 13 years, even though they lived right next door to each other. Knives were pulled in bars, a gun was pulled in church. So my very first foray, before I knew what this was, was a solo piece scratching the surface of where I came from.

Then as a member of Anne Bogart’s SITI Company for the first few years of the company’s life, I learned the process of editing, because we made shows based on found copy. I later learned from Steve and from my fellow early Civilians about being a non-judgmental listener. If you don’t let them know how you feel, then they will say anything. I went back and finished that play I started for my thesis, Highway 47 [2012; premièred at the Yo Solo Festival, Chicago]on an NEA/TCG career development program for directors. After seeing the show, one of my mom’s first cousins from the other side of the town called her up and said that by seeing these stories onstage, she saw they were all pretty much in the same boat. That’s when I loved this form and haven’t looked back.

Ping Chong: I’ve been making work for more than 45 years, and it changed around 1990. I was invited to make a show about van Gogh in Holland for the centennial of his death. This was around the time of the American/Japanese trade wars. I asked my producer if I could frame the van Gogh project within the history of Japan and the West. As opposed to my previously allegorical work, this was the first work in a decade-long quartet about Asia and the West. I call them “poetic documentary,” since they use documentary sources as the primary text.

In 1992, I made my first piece in the Undesirable Elements series, and I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t go to school to learn how to interview; I learned on the job. For that first one, I didn’t know where I was going with the material. Now, it’s been 25 years of the Undesirable Elements series, and I’ve seen how it’s a tremendous privilege to create a space in which other people can feel empowered to speak. At the beginning, there was more of my imposition of myself on it, since I didn’t know what I was doing yet. I became more hands-off. It’s all about being able to give voice to these people and to create bridges, since the people onstage and in the audience are one community, but the conversation isn’t always there.

Leigh Fondakowski: My story starts with Anna Deavere Smith [see previous post on this series, “Ringside? Let’s Take Down the Ropes,” 18 September], seeing her perform, then coming to understand that she was trying to find characters and patterns of how people present themselves. I was so taken by that and with her as a performer that I set off on my little journey to make my first piece, I Think I Like Girls [2002; premiered at Encore Theater, San Francisco], with a bunch of queer women from different generations. Then in 1998 Matthew Shepard was killed, and when Moisés Kaufman gathered the Tectonic Theater company together to propose a play, he said, “Do we as a theatre have a play which is in the national dialogue around this event?” Because it was the first time that a homophobic hate crime had received national attention. That question reoriented whether we as theatre artists had a responsibility. That was when I began to formulate this process as a playwriting technique. You’re exposed to things you don’t see in your daily life as an artist in New York, which shifts your perspective in an interesting way. I want to make a play that people care about. I’m interested in what else the form can do.

Sanchez: Can I take a moment to ask you guys how you cope with different kinds of sadness that we traffic in? I make a deal with myself, like, I say: Okay, after this show, I’ll go have a nervous breakdown. I find a way to keep myself in check, because it’s not about me, it’s about whatever the show is trying to reflect.

Cosson: When I teach on the subject of making theatre this way, I always go back to the idea that no matter how you make plays, they’re going to work the way all plays work; there are basic dramaturgical principles. We categorize things into various niches, and if you write a play that is drawn from interviews, then sometimes that’s not even considered playwriting.

Sanchez: We are playwrights, even if we are using transcripts from interviews.

Cosson: It’s still got to work as a play. When it comes to sadness or suffering, I ask myself if that suffering is connected to some kind of forward momentum as part of a larger story.

Fondakowski: There isn’t just the artistic burden to make plays, but a theatrical event that is also compelling and interesting.

Sanchez: We’re writers in how we ask questions, and in how we contextualize and frame it. You have to be able to provide an avenue for a new conversation about the issue. What do you have to offer that can’t be done in any other medium, or hasn’t been done already by a great journalist?

Cosson: One thing I think we do differently is we put the audience in the reality in an important and meaningful way. A documentary film can be deeply impactful, but I think a play can be impactful in a different way. We know what we’re seeing in front of us is a fiction, but because it’s happening we experience it as real, and that does make us empathize differently, since we have had those experiences. That’s why it can be something that pivots your life in a different direction.

Do any of you have an interview that stands out in your memory as, “Oh, this is it. This is where I hit my stride and figured it out”? Or conversely where you felt, “There is no common ground here.”

Chong: I got better through doing it. In my first interview, people were all in a room together, that original cast, and I began by jotting down notes with people there. It took me a while to realize that sometimes people had very traumatic experiences, and I had to be sensitive. There’s a need for respect when asking people to access very personal material, to help them move forward gently. Sometimes I have to be ruthless, to push as far as I could before pulling back, though, because it isn’t useful if you don’t get the story.

Sanchez: I can’t be a good listener if I’m judging whether it’s going to go into the play or not. You know if you’re having an interview and the person is assuming what’s going to go on the stage, and they’re basically pitching you their story, then that’s probably not going to have any traction in the long run. But you need to be there to listen, because they’ve given you their time.

Fondakowski: When somebody agrees to do an interview, I believe that there is a reason they agreed to do it. Whether or not they are going to share depends, because I think they’re going to wait and see in the situation if they trust me enough to say it. Usually what I ask now at the end of the two hours is, “Is there anything I didn’t ask you which was important to ask?” Sometimes the heart of the matter comes up when you think the thing is over, someone tells you the story that kind of blows your mind.

Sanchez: My students ask me, “How do you know what goes in the play and what doesn’t?” It’s always personal. Whatever I found surprising or I haven’t heard before, if it changes the way I think about the subject. But you constantly live in this place of, I have a lot of good material, I have a lot of interesting research and I don’t know if I have a play yet. That’s when the harmonies and dissonances between the people you are listening to become incredible. It reminds you to truly live in the moment.

Fondakowski: When we were working on Jonestown [The People’s Temple, 2005; premièred at Berkeley Repertory Theatre], it took us three years to get interviews because people were very hesitant. We were about a year into our process when somebody in our team made a document that said with big capital letters, “WHAT NEEDS TO BE TOLD?” That’s not the right question. The question is what is the story you want to tell. With a story like Jonestown, I felt incredible responsibility.

Cosson: Would it be interesting to talk about the appetite for difficult subject matter that is often connected to a documentary-like play? I can say there’s a marked difference in the U.S. versus the U.K. The U.K. seems to be much more on board with “get us something difficult.” And America generally wants to have a good time or a good weep, but often doesn’t want to go in for a good struggle.

Sanchez: Emily Ackerman wrote ReEntry [2009; commissioned and premièred by Two River Theater Company, Red Bank, New Jersey] with me, and we were getting a lot of productions, but every theatre was struggling to get an audience—marketing with all the right intentions, but it was a struggle. One presenter in particular, we had about 11 people in the house, and it broke my heart. I guess the real question is, how can we cultivate more interest in it? I feel like audiences are going to come and feel bad about it, feel bad that they have to care, feel bad that all these terrible things happen.

Fondakowski: I wish there wasn’t this category. I think when you say the phrase “documentary theatre,” it has a limiting idea. Each of our works is more extensive in terms of theatrical language. I try to say that my plays are plays, based on interviews and based on real events.

Sanchez: For me, it depends on the show. With ReEntry, and this one that I’m currently making for the Guthrie [Refugia, 2017], I’m calling it a documentary play for my own purposes, because it helps me define the rules of engagement. There needs to be some sort of transparency with the audience about where you are taking them.

Cosson: I try to avoid the “documentary” word altogether, and I try to make sure that nobody uses it in marketing or press releases. Several years ago I made up the idea of “investigative” theatre, which has no fixed definition. It’s an idea of theatre that has some kind of outward-looking process that feeds into the creation of the show. But it’s a little broader and people don’t know what it is.

Sanchez: I love the term “investigative theatre,” but there are times when I don’t think I could use it. For example, with these refugees and undocumented immigrants that I’m working with, there’s a lot of nervousness right now about who’s asking them questions. I think if I used the word “investigative,” then they’d be afraid of who I was, whereas the word “documentary” feels safer. The phrase I generally use is “making plays about real things and real people.”

Cosson: For those of us who do it, we have to be out there speaking about the value of what we do and connecting to the public. Content is not necessarily sexy in the American theatre. It’s not the first thing that shows up when I think of producers choosing a play or how they frame the plays. Especially outside of New York, there’s only one or two places which are training everyone how to experience theatre.

Fondakowski: I do think that there are artistic directors out there who are able to recognize new narratives.

Cosson: It’s also the value of independent companies with regards to this work. Because many of these theatres might have interest in supporting a project but don’t necessarily have a special projects team that goes into the work of documentary theatre. Like José Rivera’s Another Word for Beauty [2010, Goodman Theatre], where in order to make that show we had to spend a month in a Colombian women’s prison, which was not something the Goodman was going to staff. But I have that expertise, so I could manage it.

Fondakowski: We’re creating these kind of models. Theatre institutions, non-theatre institutions, universities, high schools—we’re taking all of these aspects to fund a process that is incredibly expensive, even if you do it on a shoestring. And so that’s part of what’s happening here as well, inventing new ways of doing theatre.

Chong: Undesirable Elements is not always performed in a traditional theatre setting. We’ve done shows in YMCAs, community centers, Union Seminary and Trinity Church in New York, a beauty parlor. Since the Undesirable Elements subject matter varies greatly, each one seems to have an audience that is interested in that subject.

How do you define success for your work?

Sanchez: First, exactly what Leigh said: A project is successful if it stands on its own as a play. But I also define success if I was able to hang onto my own value system and if I was honest in representing what I saw, emotionally, spiritually, and intentionally. And if someone can say that was a good piece of theatre, as cheesy as it sounds. Hopefully we leave behind a chronicle of our communities right now.

Chong: The nature of an Undesirable Elements project is creating understanding, since participants are learning about each other. Success is when someone hears a story or perspective from within their community that they haven’t heard before, and the audience gets to join in on that conversation. For example, doing a show in Charleston, South Carolina, one woman came out as a lesbian during the show, to her mother, in public, and a conservative guy spoke up in a talkback to say, “I don’t like gay people, but after hearing her story, I have to think about it again.” Many people haven’t had the opportunity to address things publicly that they share in the show. The reward for me is tremendous, and it’s such a privilege.

Fondakowski: We also have this shared experience that we’re not talking about, which is getting the interview material. I assume you guys have a lot of intimate relationships with people across the country. So that’s also, not to be too cheesy, a profound experience as an artist. And you learn all about these things that you would never normally think about. You become this expert.

Cosson: I can tell how much I’ve changed since doing a piece. Even when you’re telling other people’s stories, you’re entering into those stories yourself. And if you’ve gone beyond yourself to consider other people’s experience with empathy and identification as much as possible, then that is a very important accomplishment. That is why I do the work. In the interviewing phase, I always feel like a bigger and better person. I live in the world in a different way.

Amelia Parenteau is writer and practitioner based in New Orleans.

[In her introductory remarks above, Parenteau names several plays composed by her panelists.  Some of them came up again in the ensuing discussion where I identified them briefly; other titles weren’t mentioned again, so I’ll give them a quick ID here for the reader curious enough to pursue them further: 

  •   The Civilians and Steve Cosson’s This Beautiful City – 2008; première at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, Actors Theatre of Louisville
  •    and The Great Immensity – 2014; Public Lab, Public Theater, New York City
  •    Leigh Fondakowski and the Tectonic Theater Project’s The Laramie Project – 2000; premiered at the Ricketson Theatre of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts by the Denver Center Theatre Company
  •    and Spill 2015; premiered at the Swine Palace, Baton Rouge
  •    KJ Sanchez’s X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story) 2015; Berkeley Repertory Theatre

[There’s plenty of additional details about these shows on line for readers who want more information.]