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 "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 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.]

18 September 2017

"On The Real: Documentary Theatre"

Article 2
[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 Anna Deavere Smith

Theatre ought to grow our moral imagination in a time of crisis. How do we get there—and who is ‘we’?

A version of the following speech was presented on June 23, 2016, as the opening plenary of Theatre Communications Group’s national conference in Washington, D.C., almost 20 years to the day after playwright August Wilson delivered his influential “The Ground on Which I Stand” speech on June 26, 1996, at TCG’s conference in Princeton, N.J. Portions of this text formed part of Notes From the Field, which Smith has performed at California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre, American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., and Second Stage Theater in New York City.

End of summer, 1996.

I had stepped off the campaign trail—which was where I spent a lot of the summer and fall of 1996, doing research for my play, House Arrest: The American Press and Its Relationship to the Presidency. I was traveling on both President Clinton’s campaign plane and on Bob Dole’s. I even traveled with the Young Republicans on a train into San Diego, where the Republican convention was staged, and to Chicago for the Democrats’.

Into my road-weary suitcase, I threw Jack Kerouac’s alcohol-saturated piece Big Sur. I was bound for rest and reinvigoration in the dramatic landscape of the same name along the California coast. I tossed in some Etta James CDs, a copy of The Boys on the Bus, which I was carrying everywhere to read so I could better understand campaign culture. It remained unread, as did Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. When I finally read Fear and Loathing after Thompson died, I regretted that I had not read it before doing my massive swing state-to-state with the candidates. Ironically, Thompson’s irreverent whiskey prose would have kept me from taking the press as seriously as I did.

By the time I hit the campaign trail, the press corps drank Perrier instead of whiskey and still spoke of the nightmares they’d had while undergraduates at Harvard. They were very upper middle class—kids in private schools, etc. When I look back on that time, I realize how “inside” the press strove to be. Now I understand that we’d be better off with an edgier, less “mainstream” group. Current presidential politics reveal that we need outsiders who move in unexpected ways, in unexpected places, in the world of letters and ideas. Our world is unknown and unexpected—full of surprises. To strive for comfort and the life of the bourgeoisie cuts off curiosity and mobility.

This was the age of “gotcha” journalism. An age that would make many talented people wary of getting into politics. I am told that this hypervigilance was a result of the trauma of having been too “inside” while a couple of unknown reporters from the “outside” broke the Watergate story. As I look back on the ’90s, I see that this gotcha-ism, seen as a kind of necessary cowboy mentality, was only a performance. The gotcha-ism was still about appearances. As we see from our current presidency, for all their gotcha-ism, they were still setting their sails in the wrong direction. They were still too entertained by themselves and the theatre of their punditry to know what was happening in the country.

We in the real theatre must hear this as a cautionary bell. It’s within that frame that I tell you the story of August Wilson and Robert Brustein and our trip to Town Hall.

Just as I was about to head down Highway 1, I received a message (this was before text and the proliferation of email) from Don Shirley, a columnist and critic at the Los Angeles Times. He wanted to know my opinion of the debate. Debate? I was so ensconced in the campaign and the history of presidential campaigns that I thought he was referring to the 19th-century Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Shirley’s call was about what we now refer to as “Ground”—August Wilson’s speech at the 1996 TCG conference and critic Robert Brustein’s response. I did not know about the controversy. So before returning the call, I read both speeches. In actuality, there was no debate. Rather, there was a series of monologues and a metaphorical ringside audience that sat, for the most part, in shock but passive observance.

Wilson called for greater equity in the theatre, a larger presence of blacks in the theatre, and he denounced what was then called colorblind casting or nontraditional casting. Brustein attacked many of the premises in Wilson’s speech. Wilson responded. These three monologues were published and there was much discussion. Many were shocked at Wilson’s passion. Some told me that given his stature in the theatre, it would seem that he would be “happy” or “content.” He was widely decorated (Pulitzers, Tonys, etc.). In fact, Brustein proposed that Wilson’s passionate critique of the theatre came as a result of his not getting a Tony Award that very year.

My read? Wilson’s discontent was less about his own situation and more about the situation of his race. Brustein was among those critics and scholars in the ’90s who denounced what they called “victim art.” (Some would respond by pointing out that anything that was not written by a straight white male would be in that category.)

I returned the call from the side of the road, somewhere around Salinas. “Thank you for calling me back so soon,” Shirley said. “Sure,” I said. “But I can’t talk to you about the debate because I have not spoken to either Mr. Wilson or Mr. Brustein.” Long pause. “Oh,” was the response. He seemed surprised that I wouldn’t just spout off my opinion without having attended the conference, or having spoken personally to either Wilson or Brustein.

Big Sur inspired me with an idea. I thought about one of my favorite recorded human interactions, A Rap on Race. Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, had invited James Baldwin to have a long recorded conversation about race. They had never met before. They talked for hours and hours. Decades ago, I had purchased the six-record set at the American Museum of Natural History. It is a long, thrilling sharing of ideas. It ultimately breaks into a full-fledged verbal battle. [The conversation was recorded on 25 August 1970 and edited transcripts were published by J. B. Lippincott & Co. of Philadelphia in 1971.]

Intoxicated by the magnificent rock arch at Pfeiffer beach in Big Sur, I thought about the exchange which I’d first heard at the tail end of the 1970s but it always stuck in my mind. It got fiery sometimes, but often ended in a good and new perception. Take this, for example:

[Performing both parts]

Margaret Mead: What I’m trying to consider is, whether there is an inevitable difference in the spiritual stance. In your—

James Baldwin: We can’t talk about the spiritual stance unless we talk about power! I’m talking ’bout power. I am talking about that South African miner on whom the entire life of the Western world is based.

Mead: Well, I’m just sorry, because it isn’t only based on that South African miner. It’s based on miners in this country! And miners in Britain that are underground!

Baldwin: It’s the same—it’s the same principle.

Mead: It isn’t the same principal! As long as you are going to make—continually make it racial.

Baldwin: I’m not being racial!

Mead: But you are being racial! I bring—I present you—

Baldwin: Charles Dickens talked about kids being dragged through mines long before they discovered me.

Mead: That’s right. But you know we’re not having a rational conversation.

Baldwin: We’re talking about the profit motive.

Mead: We’re not— We weren’t!

[Baldwin laughs]

Mead: You said if it’s power. There’s a difference in power. So, I said okay, you reverse it, did you reverse it?

Baldwin: Look, lemme put it this way—

Mead: What I feel is this. We agree that we’re both Americans. We agree in the sense of responsibility for the present and the future. You have approached this present moment by one route and I have approached it by another. In the terms . . . in the colors of our skin you represent a . . . a course of victimization and suffering and exploitation and everything in the world—we can make any number that . . . and I represent the group . . . Now wait a minute. If you just use skin color, I represent the group that were in the ascendancy, were the conquerors, had the power, owned the land—you can say anything you like. All right. Now here we both are. Now, furthermore, however, I do not represent and I never have been a part in the whole of my life, because of the accidents of my upbringing and so forth, of the kind of psychology that would perpetuate this. You also have moved around, have lived in many parts of the world, and although you completely understand what happens here, but you have included a lot of other things in your psyche. Now is it necessary for you to . . . to narrow history, and I still want . . . to think this is a phrase . . . and express only despair or bitterness while I express hope? And is this intrinsic to our position at the moment? Or can we . . . both of us out of such a different past and such a different experience—and a contemporarily different experience because you in your own country, wherever you go, are likely to meet with insult, with indignity—

Baldwin: Danger.

Mead: Yeah. Whereas wherever I go, on the whole—if they haven’t heard me say I was in favor of marijuana—I am greeted with, on the whole, kindness. So that contemporaneously your experience and mine will continue to be different. Now, given that fact, can we both, nevertheless, stand shoulder to shoulder, a continent or an ocean away, working for the same future? Now, I think this is the real problem.

I had always wanted to see a modern rap on race, but frankly there were almost no white people around then (or now) who would speak as truthfully as relentlessly openly as Margaret Mead. Both Mead and Baldwin were in pursuit of an American truth.

“Okay,” I thought. “Gotta get Wilson and Brustein together.” Wilson had the fire of Baldwin and Brustein had the candor of Mead.

Back in Washington, D.C., my headquarters for the research on the campaign—research which would become my play House Arrest [premièred 7 November 1997 at Arena; revised version débuted at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum on 9 April 1999]—I made the calls to Brustein and Wilson. This was the perfect place to plan the convening. I lived in a 19th-century townhouse owned by a Republican congressman who was married to a liberal, Boston Brahman Democrat. We often had lively debates across party lines. There was a bumper sticker in the kitchen: “The Road to Hell Is Paved with Republicans.” In magic marker was written, “except for Amo” (Amory Houghton, the Republican Congressman). The Democrat, Priscilla Dewey Houghton, was a faithful board member of the Arena Stage, which had commissioned my play. During my stay, Priscilla had gotten papers on the history of the house, revealing that slaves had worked and lived there.

“Have you and Robert Brustein actually debated your ideas in person?” I asked Wilson.


“Have you ever met him in person?”


“Would you do so if I could arrange it?”

“Yeah. If you will moderate it.”

I called Robert Brustein. I asked the same question, and got the same answers, including, “Yeah. If you will moderate it.”

My original idea was to have a small event in a nice conference room at New York University, where I was going to be in residence that fall. As part of the residency, I had been asked to do some public panels, discussions, and debates. An assistant in the department that hosted me had been given the task of setting up logistics. Something went wrong in the way she approached Brustein’s office and he decided not to go forward.

I needed a Plan B. How could three monologues go down as debate—in the theatre?

I called John Sullivan, who was then executive director of TCG. The “debate,” after all, had started at a TCG conference. He was excited about this idea. He called me back and suggested that Town Hall in New York would be the perfect venue.

Town Hall?

That seemed like a much bigger event than I had in mind, but if the staff of TCG felt the idea warranted such attention…

I started doing in-depth research on both men. Somewhere close to the event itself, I was told to call the PR agency that had been hired to promote the event. A lot of excitement came from the other side of the phone. The press rep was taking bets. “Wilson will take the fight,” he said with assurance.


Uh. Oh.

I had not planned on a circus.

In my introductory remarks, I alluded to the conversation between James Baldwin and Margaret Mead. But much to my dismay, neither of the two conversants had much appetite to engage in a conversation. A sinking feeling descended from my head to my throat to my stomach. Though I had stepped onstage with a healthy amount of adrenaline, my blood pressure dropped significantly.

During the intermission, TCG staffers descended upon me as if I myself were a boxer about to be eaten alive, with many notes scrawled on pieces of paper, meant to help me pick up the pace, ask provocative questions, and make the event more exciting. If memory serves me, there were also 3×5 cards with questions from the audience—headless, voiceless, presence-less questions.

Back onstage I went, resigned that I was in a different reality than the staff.

As the timer indicated that the end was coming, I asked each gentleman if they had learned anything from the other. Brustein said that he had learned that August Wilson was really a teddy bear. Wilson responded that he was, make no mistake about it, a lion. These brief last words were reported in The New York Times.

Lani Guinier, legal scholar then at Penn, now at Harvard, had come to town to see the event. I have met very few scholars who are as generous and openhearted as Lani. The next morning, she called me on the phone. “I want to help you,” she said.

Lani said I should have assembled Brustein and Wilson in a room alone, or with just a few people. “Just like that Margaret Mead/James Baldwin conversation you talked about.” What could have been a deep dive into different ideas about art and theatre was not the boxing match people thought it would be. I think the two gentlemen said all they had to say in print. In short, the onstage debate was a disaster in my view.  [The debate took place on 27 January 1997.]

A New Civil Rights Movement

My experience on the campaign trail should have prepared me for what the theatre of the event was meant to be. If 1996 was the peak of gotcha journalism, my colleagues in the theatre seemed to be after a gotcha conversation. Alas, as I look back on that era, I see that these “conversations about race”—which were often prefaced with a promise that it’d be “like a living room”—did us a disservice. I’ve been on several of those panels of the last two decades. They are simply awful. They are shouting matches where people with great verbal acuity seek to take up as much time as possible. Very little is accomplished. It’s kind of like rap music: It is a display of verbal virtuosity. The audience sits in judgment and passive observance.

What we need are events where the audience is provoked to do something.

Ringside is not where we ought to be. We ought to be in our world making a difference. That’s what we promise in mission statements and grant applications. Theatres have an opportunity to disrupt and even take down the ring; to reconstruct the position of the audience. Theatres could lead the way and pump up the health of an active citizenry.

For decades, I have been traveling around America with a tape recorder. My grandfather said, “If you say a word often enough it becomes you.” I have been trying to become America, word for word. If there are any perceptive psychiatrists in the audience, you would say that my search for American character is a healing strategy, a balm against the de facto segregation into which I was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Segregation hit me in a way that caused me to question the degree to which survival required me to lose some of my own empathic imagination. To cite Martin Buber’s I and Thou: We can have either I/it relationships where we turn persons into things, or I/thou relationships where we struggle with what I now call “the broad jump toward the other.”

The tape recorder has given me the necessary distance to come close to strangers. I tape-record people, usually about controversial events, in principle on both sides of the controversy but in reality not always. I then learn what I have recorded, word for word. I am trying to put myself in other people’s shoes by putting myself in their actual words.

I am writing a new play called Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education. [An early version of Notes ran at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre 11 July-2 August 2015; the completed play premièred at Boston’s American Repertory Theater on 20 August 2016.] It was inspired by my learning of what is often called “the school-to-prison pipeline.”

The U.S. Department of Justice released statistics revealing that poor black, brown, and Native American children are disciplined more harshly and expelled and suspended much more frequently than their middle-class brothers and sisters. These suspensions and expulsions often result in residencies in juvenile hall. As California’s Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, says, “If you are not in school, you are in trouble.”

I have been traveling in four geographic areas: Northern California (to Stockton, a bankrupt city, and further up the coast to the Yurok Indian reservation near the Oregon Border), Philadelphia, Baltimore, and most recently South Carolina, to Charleston, and all along the “Corridor of Shame,” so named because of the state of its public schools.

People say that we may be on the verge of a new civil rights movement, and Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, says it will happen at the intersection of education and law enforcement. She calls for an investment in public education and fairness in law enforcement that will be as large and as grand as the interstate highway system. Imagine that.

In the meantime, we have a public school system that is in dire need of repair, and policing looks pretty bad these days. But we cannot expect, as Obama said after the riots in Baltimore in 2015, to be able [to] fix our problem of inequality by fixing the police. The police are the front line, the guard dogs keeping the rich from the poor and vice versa.

Here are some excerpts from my play [i.e., Notes From the Field].


Allen Bullock
Baltimore Protester
“Big Stick”

I don’t even look the police way, tell you the truth, that’s not even me, like . . . I don’t even pay the police no mind, like, they look at me, I turn my head, I look ba—if I’m gonna look back at you, I’m not gonna mug you, I’mma just look away, you feel me? That’s all it is to—

Because, if you look at a police so hard or so straight—I don’t know, like—see how it was. You feel me? In the way, like, see, how he was [Freddie Gray], you feel me, in the way he was around this neighborhood—if the neighborhood police—they don’t care, they do not care about none of that. You—if they know you in that neighborhood, they gonna do something to—I don’t care what neighborhood you in, it could be a quiet neighborhood, anything, the police know you from . . . being bad, or not even being bad, but being around the area—anything, hangin’ with somebody that they know that’s bad? They gonna harass you, and if they gonna harass you: “Why you lookin’ at me like that?” They will ask you: “Why you lookin’ at me like that?” In a smart way, you feel me? Jump outta the car, pull their stick, all that, you feel me? I had the police ask me why am I walkin’ in the street, why am I crossin’ the street, like. “What you mean? Why am I crossin’ the street?” I’m sayin’ something back, he jettin’ out of the car, so I get back on the curb. You feel me? There’s no need for you to get out of the car and—you feel me? And talk to me. You could see why am I walkin’ across the street. They don’t say “Excuse me, sir,” “Come here,” none of that. You just ask me why am I walkin’ across the street, you feel me? It’s not late outside, it’s not none of that, so what is [it] you—I don’t know, there’s just a lot of police out here that’s . . . being police, being what they do.

Be smart, that’s what I would gotta say to you. Be smart. That’s all that’s—that’s all [there] is to it, if you know you—say if you—I don’t care what you do out there, that’s your hustle, and if you got somethin’ on you, don’t even pay the police no mind—you feel? Don’t even draw no attention, but you not doin’ nothin’, I still don’t expect for you to draw no attention to the police. Like, the police out here don’t care, even if you don’t got nothin’ on you! Why look at the police, you ain’t got no—why mug the police, you feel me? No reason at all, so, I wouldn’t even pay the police no mind, I don’t pay the police out here no mind. They mug me all day, I don’t care about none of that—they doin’, like, I see ’em, you feel me, like, I don’t say too much stuff, the police and all that, like for no reason at all, like, I’m just sayin’ that like. I’m out in these streets.

[I got beat]—it only happen—it happen ’bout four times, four times, that’s what I remember, four times. You can’t protect yourself! When it come to the police, you can’t say too much, but run your mouth and once you—once they see you really runnin’ your mouth, they try catch you or try do something to you. And especially if they ain’t got no reason, you feel me, to touch you, they definitely won’t touch you, like, they chase you, all this, and you ain’t got nothing on you, and they just chasin’ you? Man, they—they worth it—gonna make it worth they while, they gonna find—they gonna not even put nothin’ on you, they gonna beat you. Straight like that, it ain’t no, “Oh, I’mma plant something on him,” they just do [what] they wanna do, at that time, at that moment.

It don’t—it don’t even matter this—at this point. It don’t—it don’t even matter if they black or white. I never—I don’t even—it ain’t no black or white situation. I ain’t tryin’ to hear that. I seen plenty of black officers do it, and I’m black, you feel me, to black people. And I seen plenty of white police do it. And I done seen ’em do it together. It ain’t no—no racist thing, if that’s what I—I don’t see no racist thing comin’ into play. I think it’s a hatred thing. Like, they hate, you feel me, like, if I ca—if you can’t find nothing on me, what’s the whole point of you lockin’ me up, or you beatin’ me up, you feel me? For no reason. Cause I made you run? Come on now, like, you train to do this, like. Stuff happen every day in Baltimore City.

I don’t know, like the hood police be hatin’. Like, they just a hateful—they just hateful people, like. They could see you have a couple of dollars in your hand, no drugs, no nothin’, just a couple of dollars, and think you doin’ wrong. You don’t know me, I work! So what are you sayin’, like. But you pullin’ me over, ask where my money come from. You don’t got no right to ask me where my money comin’ from. You don’t got no right to check me, you feel me. Like, you don’t have no warrant, no nothin’. To put your hands on me, period, but hey, they do it. I don’t fuss with you over nothin’ like that. I know you the police and you gonna do what you want, regardless. And you got a big stick, so. So, hey.

James Baldwin
From A Rap On Race
By Margaret Mead and James Baldwin
“Walk on a Leaf” 

Somebody said, Allen Ginsberg said, “Don’t call a cop a pig. Call him a friend. You call him a friend, he’ll act like a friend.” I know more about cops than that. What I do know—what I do know—is that I do not like to be corralled. I don’t like being a subject nation. That I do know. And I don’t care how well the cops are educated! I know what their role is in my life! And I will not accept it. I know that my situation cannot be endured. It cannot be endured.

And if I turn into a monster by trying to change it, that is something, a risk, my soul will have to take. I’m not being objective. I’m trying to say this: We been talking about time present, time past. According to the West I have no history. I’ve had to wrest my identity out of the jaws of the West. We did that on a famous day in Washington. I was there. And do you know the answer we got? Two weeks later? Ten days later? Out of that enormous petition? Know the first answer that the Republic gave us? My phone rang one morning. I was back in Hollywood, God knows why. And a CORE worker was telling me—she could hardly talk—that four black girls had been bombed into eternity in a Sunday school in Birmingham. That was the answer the Republic gave! The Republic includes you, includes me too. You are responsible. I am responsible.

It doesn’t matter what one tries. God knows, you know . . . I—I’m not the least interested in carrying on the nightmare. Nevertheless, if I don’t, I, Jimmy, don’t accept the very brutal fact, which is not extraordinary, it’s happened to everybody else in the world, too, but if I pretend that it did not happen to me, that I was not there, then I cannot live. I—I’m not talking about . . . I’m not talking about going back. Nobody—nobody can, anyway. But the past is the present, my situation is—our situation, really—my situation presents itself to me as exceedingly urgent. I cannot lie to myself about some things. I cannot—I don’t mean anybody else here. I mean that I have to know something about myself and my countrymen. The most terrible thing about it is not the lootings, the fires, or the burnings, the bombings; that’s bad enough. What is really terrible—is to face the fact that you cannot trust your countrymen. That you cannot trust them. For the assumptions under which they live, are antithetical to any hope you may have to live. It is a terrible omen when you see an American flag on somebody’s car and realize that’s your enemy. In principle, it’s your flag, too.

If I, Jimmy, really offend you, Margaret, and I pretend I haven’t, I have sealed my life off from all life, all light and all air. I will not get past my crime if I pretend I did not. If I have offended you, then I have to come to you and say, “I’m sorry, please forgive me.” I’m only talking about that, and if I can’t do that, then I cannot live. I don’t mean I have a bill to pay back. We are living in a kind of theology. You are identified with the angels. I’m identified with the devil. That’s what I mean by history being present.

Luckily, I’m not 15, but if I were, how in the world would I achieve any respect for human life, or any sense of history? What I’m trying to say is that if I were young, I would find myself with no models. That’s a very crucial situation. When you consider what we have done! Our generation! The world that we’ve created. If I was 15, I would feel hopeless too! You see what one’s gotta do is try to face…what I’m trying to get at, is . . . I read a little book called The Way It Spozed to Be [James Herndon; Simon and Schuster, 1968]. And it was poetry and things written by little black children, Mexican, Puerto Rican children, various schools in—land of free and the home of the brave. And the teacher, he made a compilation of the poetry that his kids wrote. He dealt with them as though they were in fact, as in fact all children are—all human beings are—a kind of miracle! And for that very tiny book, about 30 pages long, one boy wrote a poem. Sixteen years old. He was in prison. It ended—four lines I never will forget. “Walk on water, walk on a leaf. Hardest of all is walk in grief.”

What I’m getting at, I hope, is that there is a tremendous national, moral, global waste. And the question is: How can it be arrested? That’s an enormous question. Look. You and I are both whatever we have become. Curtain will come down eventually. But! What should we do about the children? We are responsible, in so far as we’re responsible at all, we are responsible for the future of this world.

Congressman John Lewis
U.S. Representative

On our way. On this trip that we been takin’ for the past 13 years. I been going back every year since 1965. Back to Selma. To commemorate the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, that took place on March 7, 1965. But we usually stop in Birmingham for a day. And then we go to Montgomery for a day. And then we go Selma.

But on this trip, to Montgomery, we stopped at First Baptist Church, the church that was pastored by the Reverend Ralph Abernathy. It’s the same church where I met the Dr. Martin Luther King and the Reverend Abernathy. In the spring of 1958.

Young police officer—the chief—the chief came to the church to speak on behalf of the mayor that was not available. And he gave a very movin’ speech to the audience. The church was full. Black. White. Latino. Asian American. Members of Congress. Staffers. Family members, children and grandchildren. And he said, “What happened in Montgomery 52 years ago durin’ the freedom ride was not right,” he said. “Fifty-two years ago was not right. The police department didn’t show up. They allowed a angry mob to come and beat you,” and he said, “Congressman! I’m sorry for what happened. I want to apologize. This is not the Montgomery that we want Montgomery to be. This is not the police department that I want to be the chief of. Before any officers are hired,” he said, “they go through trainin’.

They have to study the life of Rosa Parks. The life of Martin Luther King Jr. They have to visit the historic sites of the movement. They have to know what happened in Birmingham and what happened in Montgomery and what happened in Selma.” He said, “I want you to forgive us.” He said, “To show the respect that I have for you and for the movement I want to take off my badge and give it to you.”

And the church was so quiet. No one sayin’ a word. And I stood up to accept the badge. And I started cryin’. And everybody in the church started cryin’. There was not a dry eye in the church.

And I said, “Officer. Chief. I cannot accept your badge. I’m not worthy to accept your badge. Don’t you need it?”

He said, “Congressman Lewis, I can get another one. I want you to have my badge.”

And I took it. And I will hold on to it forever. But he hugged me. I hugged him. I cried some more. And you had Democrats and Republicans in the church. Cryin’. And his young deputy assistant. A young African American. Was sittin’ down. He couldn’t stand. He cried so much, like a baby, really.

It was the first time that a police chief in any city where I visited or where I got arrested durin’ the ’60s ever apologized, or where I was beaten. Or where I was beaten. It was a moment of grace. It was a moment of reconciliation. [The Chief] was very young, he was not even born 52 years ago. So he was offerin’ an apology and to be forgiven on behalf of his associates, his colleagues of the past.

[It’s a moment of grace.] It means that sufferin’ and the pain that many of the people have suffered have been redeemed.

And then for the police officer, the chief, to come and apologize. To ask to be forgiven. It—it felt so good, and at the same time so freein’ and liberatin’. To have this young man come up. He hugged me and held me. I felt like, you know, I’m not worthy. You know, I’m just one. But many people were beaten.

It is amazing grace. You know the line in there, “Saved a wretch like me”? In a sense, it’s saying that we all have fallen short! Cause we all just tryin’ to just make it! We all searching! As Dr. King said, we were out to redeem the soul of America. But we first have to redeem ourselves.

This message. This act of grace of the badge says to me, “Hold on.” And, “Never give up. Never give in.” “Never lose faith. Keep the faith.”

Even in this day and age for a city like Montgomery. For this young man, somethin’ moved him. And it takes what I call raw courage. To go with the spirit. To go with his heart. His soul. He’s a very, he’s really a very interestin’ man. I been thinking about callin’ him. “How ya doin’?”

The only time somethin’ happened like this before was a member of the Klan from Rock Hill, South Carolina, that beat me and my seatmate. On May 9, 1961, durin’ the Freedom Ride. He came here to this office in February ’09. His son had been encouraging his father to seek out the people he had wronged.

And he came in the office and said, “Mr. Lewis, I’m one of the people that beat you on May 9, 1961. I want to apologize.” He said, “Will you forgive me?”

I said, “I forgive you. I accept your apology.”

His son started cryin’. He started cryin’. I started cryin’. He hugged me. I hugged him. His son hugged me. And since that time, I seen this guy four times since then.

He called me “brother.” And I call him “brother.”

[The event Congressman Lewis describe above occurred on 2 March 2013.  The police chief was Kevin Murphy, 50.]

We stop the show in the middle of the play. I know my limitations. And I know that there are people in the audience who can make a real difference. We divide the audience up into small groups of 20 and send them off for facilitated conversations. They talk about the performance, but they make commitments about what they are going to do.

Thank you to Berkeley Rep and the American Repertory Theater for working with me on the first experiment that we call the Second Act. It is challenging, and Berkeley and ART went for it, logistics and all.

I want someone somewhere in the audience of Notes From the Field to do something to break the school-to-prison pipeline and/or ignite the new civil rights movement.

The Ground on Which “We” Stand? 

“Ground,” as Wilson’s speech is now called, is “The Ground on Which I Stand.” I see and hear it referred to as “The Ground on Which We Stand.”

Wilson was a “race man,” as we blacks who fought for the race are called. He proudly carried the blood-stained banner of black struggle. From the point of view of his “I,” some among us were moved, others motivated, others outraged, others frightened, others perplexed, others full of guilt.

In 1996 and after, many of you stood in relationship to Wilson’s ground.

Those of us who were moved, are moved, must move.

So an action, a move-ment, requires as many movers, shakers and seekers as it can attract.

Our ground seems to me to be very complex.

We all meet here with different histories, different banners of struggle, and we meet at different junctures in our histories. We are a map with some intersecting points and many straying lines in search of connection. Most of us want to board the train toward progress, equity, self-fulfillment, helping fulfill the lives of others, toward protecting all living beings and natural resources. And toward love.

I have now visited the Island of Gorée in Senegal. The holding pens where many Africans were held before being put into the bowels of slave ships and sent to this country.

But before my forefathers got here, Native Americans were on this ground. Many of them, too, were transported from their homeland to another place. The Trail of Tears. A national disgrace. Some now live on fractured lands, among fractured lives and disrupted joys; sometimes in beautiful surroundings, sometimes not. Their youth have, statistics tell us, an epidemic of suicide, despair, and depression. I was welcomed to the river on the Yurok reservation in Northern California. I found myself saturated by their history, their dances, their modern struggle against poverty, drug addiction, alcoholism, teen suicide, and violence.

Trump promised a wall. When I was doing research for my play Twilight: Los Angeles, journalist/musician Rubén Martínez told me that that no wall will hold Mexicans back, because it is not only jobs that they seek. They seek their homeland. After all, some Mexicans are pulled by deep ancestral forces. They believe that California is Mexico.

Migration is human history. Migration is human present and human future. Those who came in a variety of migrations from Asia. A variety of migrations from Europe, throughout American history, running from genocides or poverty or dogmas. We would not have imagined the profound otherness of Muslims 20 years ago.

Our ground is complex because 20 years have passed since Wilson/Brustein nailed their edicts to the pages of American Theatre.

Wilson/Brustein was before:

9/11. Which burst our world open in all ways, and certainly in racial ways.

The iPhone. Which has connected us around the world, in ways that both foster brother and sisterhood and threaten to bring us closer to evil.

Google Maps.



High school students, primarily Latino, staging walkouts in Los Angeles, Houston, and other cities, boycotting schools and businesses in support of immigrant rights and equality.


Shonda Rhimes.

Mainstreaming of the TED conference. Mainstreaming of TEDx.

The proliferation of places and journals that gather free content and charge money for the public to access it.

A sitting U.S. president visited a federal penitentiary (Obama). A sitting U.S. president visited an Indian reservation (Obama).

Jeremy Lin became the first American born NBA player to be of Chinese/Taiwanese descent.

Minutemen Project, with its civilians, took it upon themselves to sit down at the Mexican-American border in their version of a neighborhood watch.

“The West Wing” television show.

Reality television.

The term “white privilege” moved from primarily academic circles to mainstream parlance.

Rashes of violence reached the peak that is sweeping us now.

Orlando. Which happened just shy of the one-year memorial of the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston South Carolina.

The first black president.

Expectation of a potential first woman president.

Donald Trump.

Caitlyn Jenner.

Black Lives Matter.

Hamilton. Imagine a conversation between Lin-Manuel Miranda, Wilson, and Brustein. What would Wilson or Brustein think of a Latino playing Alexander Hamilton, translating a white man’s book? Or a black man playing Aaron Burr?

The Ground on Which the American Theatre Stands Is Not Just

Theatres are convening places. Communities need them, our country needs them, the world needs them. But some communities do not have this experience in their schools or inside of theatre buildings.

Many of us in this room are concerned, even horrified, by the growing gap between rich and poor in this country. Many of us want to do something about inequality. Our mission statements and grants applications make us sound as though we are world renewal projects, projects that would lead to the betterment of mankind. But let’s look in the mirror.

The DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland released a report. Many of you know of it. There was controversy surrounding its release. To my eye, it gives valuable history and statistics. Among them:

The highest reported compensation for leaders in mainstream theatres is $605,361. The median is $388,812. The lowest is $316,134.

The highest reported compensation for a leader at a Latino theatre is $88,539. The median is $51,298. The lowest is $9,970.

The highest compensation for a leader in African-American theatre is $110,000. The median is $62,692. The lowest is $29,408.

What shall we do about our problematic statistics? Who is welcome in leadership roles? What kinds of theatres are welcome in communities and in this country? What kind of artists are radically welcomed? To whom is hospitality extended?

The theatre does not exist in a vacuum. Scholars of contemporary theatre look at the ’80s and point to a severe decline in smaller arts groups. Some say survival required a corporate attitude on boards. Alisa Solomon wrote a deeply researched article in the Village Voice in December 1992, titled “Identity Crisis: Can the Arts Survive Capitalism?” She quoted one director who said, “In the ’70s, when you went to meet a funder it was enough to wear a suit. But in the ’80s, the whole organization had to be dressed like Wall Street.”

Our situation now needs different and new economics. How can we say in our mission statements and grant applications that we support and perpetuate the best in human instincts and live with the inequality that is so evident in the arts?

Take what was learned by figuring out how to increase square footage and increase the wages of actors, designers, and other artists. We can no longer assume that people are willing to starve for the theatre. We lose them to other professions in the entertainment industry and we lose out on talent who would never dare try because the economy is so bad.

Perhaps we should combine our forces. Invest in some large facilities in which a diverse group of people with diverse missions can share administrative costs, share rent costs, share the responsibility for making a healthy endowment, share the development plan, and potentially share and crisscross audiences. By diverse I include those who announce themselves as the white privileged as well as the other cultures sometimes considered marginal. And though I’d like to see work that is activist and dedicated to social justice, I am not a snob. (I myself just played Hawkwoman’s past life on “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.”) Artistic experimentation would be the goal. Artistic innovation. Economic innovation. Leadership innovation. Developing skills for new leaders and new artists would be the goal. Revealing more about the grounds on which we stand would be the goal.

We find ourselves in the midst of an economic, security, and moral crisis. In the arts, we cannot save the world, we cannot teach reading and math through drama, music and dance, but we can prick and instigate the growth of the public moral imagination. Develop a radical welcome.

The idea of a radical welcome comes from the Christian church. To quote: “Radical welcome is first and foremost a spiritual practice. It combines the Christian ministry of welcome and hospitality with a faithful commitment to doing the theological, spiritual and systemic work to eliminate historic, systemic barriers that limit the genuine embrace of groups generally marginalized in mainline churches (young adults, the poor, LGBT people, people of color, people with disabilities).”

Develop a spirit of hospitality, of radical hospitality. As Derrida wrote [Of Hospitality; Stanford University Press, 2000]:

Let us say yes to who or what turns up, before any determination, before any anticipation, before any identification, whether or not it has to do with a foreigner, an immigrant, an invited guest, or an unexpected visitor, whether or not the new arrival is the citizen of another country, a human, animal, or divine creature, a living or dead thing, male or female.

Develop a radical hospitality towards one another and toward the global public on whose ground we stand.

Thank you.