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.

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