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Documentary theatre, or theatre of fact, is theatre that wholly or in part uses pre-existing documentary material (such as newspapers, government reports, interviews, etc.) as source material for the script, ideally without altering its wording.
Documentary theatre has existed as a genre for as long as theatre itself has existed. Attilio Favorini, professor of Theater Arts at the University of Pittsburgh, dates the first dramatic documentary impulse back to 492 BC when the ancient Greek playwright Phrynicus produced his play The Capture of Miletus about the Persian War. He traces the genre through to European medieval mystery plays, Elizabethan England and Shakespeare's historical tragedies, French revolutionary patriotic dramas, British and American 1930s Living Newspapers and German plays about the Holocaust.
In its modern form, documentary theatre was pioneered by two famous German authors and directors – Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator in the 1920s, focusing on issues of social conflict, class tensions and power structures. Essentially derived from Brecht and Piscator's Epic Theatre, Piscator developed his own 'Living Newspaper' in the 1930s.
In his anthology, Voicings: Ten Plays from the Documentary Theater, Favorini collects the most important 20th century examples of the genre, and argues that documentary theatre is highly relevant and resonant in societies that create and consume contemporary news as aggressively as we do.
Documentary theatre attempts to bring social issues to the stage by emphasizing factual information over aesthetic considerations. The creator or playwright is trying to start a dialogue with the audience by focusing on the psychological and interpersonal aspect of a particular event. The drama may position itself as a secondary source or a commentary on an event or person.
Documentary theatre uses dramatic representation of societal forces through the use of pre-existing documentary material (e.g. newspapers, government reports, interviews, etc.) as source material for the script. Where a script is based directly on interviews it is sometimes known as verbatim theatre.
Each actor commonly takes on several roles. Plays typically lacks a set and the actors change costumes and use body language in order to portray a multitude of characters on stage. Events may not be acted out, but instead be reported from the point of view of the person being interviewed. Plays tend to not have a lot of background music, allowing the audience to focus on the words spoken by the interviewees. No interview or news source is weighed as more important or more dramatic than another. The actors convey what they know is accurate and allow the audience to develop their own political points of view.
The playwright has the ability to structure specific views of complex situations in whatever way they see fit. Aesthetic invention is necessarily part of the equation just as it is in documentary film. Some documentary theatre makers assume objectivity is attainable; others may question what we come to know and how we know it.
Modern documentary theatre artists include Anna Deavere Smith, Sarah Jones, Nilaja Sun, Brooke Haycock Mike Wiley News & Observer and the performance groups Culture Clash, Erasing the Distance and the Tectonic Theater Project. Many of these artists create what is known as verbatim theatre, using the exact words of people interviewed by the playwright.
Fires in the Mirror
Fires in the Mirror is a play by American playwright, author, actress and professor Anna Deavere Smith that chronicles the viewpoints of people connected to the Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn in 1991.
The play is a series of monologues excerpted from interviews conducted by Smith with leading politicians, writers and religious leaders in addition to residents of Crown Heights and various other participants in the disturbance. Through interviews with 26 individuals, in 29 monologues Smith acts out each interview by herself. Exploring how barriers between groups can be breached.
The Laramie Project
In November 1998, Moises Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project went to Laramie, Wyoming and began interviewing citizens about the October 1998 kidnapping and murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student who was studying at the University of Wyoming. Kaufman and his company spent over a year traveling back and forth to Laramie and conducting over 200 interviews. These interviews were then fashioned into The Laramie Project. The play is a collection of interviews with the people closest to this traumatic and controversial event. The interviewers in a presentational style later perform it, where the characters talk primarily to the audience. The Laramie Project uses several actors and each actor takes on several roles. The Laramie Project is distinctive because the writers/actors/interviewers became characters in the play. Their thoughts and opinions became part of the script and in the original productions the actors played themselves.
- Favorini, Attilio (1995). Voicings: Ten Plays from the Documentary Theater. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press.