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Documentary theatre 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 theater can be used as a way to promote understanding and dialogue between people with differing points of views and deeply ingrained histories of conflict. It is used to get the entire picture of what has occurred in a specific event through the process of interviewing people involved. Its purpose is to adhere to the emotional aspect of a specific situation and portray all sides of an event. The value of theater lies in its ability to emphasize the differences between people and begin building bridges between those distinctions.
Documentary theater sits at the intersection of art and politics and can be seen as a catalyst for social change. Documentary theater, or theater of fact, is a genre that uses dramatic representation of societal forces through the use of pre-existing documentary material (i.e.. newspapers, government reports, interviews, etc.) as source material for the script. It is common in this type of theater that each actor take on several roles and the script be written as verbatim theater or the playwright’s use of exact interviews in the script.
Documentary theater plays typically lacks a set and the actors change costumes and use body language in order to portray a multitude of characters on stage. The events are not acted out but told from the point of view of the person being interviewed. Documentary theater plays tend to not have a lot of background music, allowing the audience to focus on the words that were spoken by the interviewees. Also, 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. Documentary theater is difficult to define in advance. It is complicated, experimental and conceptual. In addition, the effects of documentary theater on society are wide-ranging and hard to measure.
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 documentary anthology, Voicings: Ten Plays from the Documentary Theater, Favorini collects the most important 20th century examples of the genre and demonstrates that documentary theatre is highly relevant and resonant in societies that create and consume contemporary news as aggressively as we do.
Documentary theater is a movement that 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. Documentary drama tries to create itself as a second source or a commentary on an event or person.
The basic tension of documentary theater is the battle of the actual versus the fictive. The playwright has their audience captivated; with the ability to show whatever side they want during the performance. While documentary theater playwrights have a responsibility to the truth, sometimes their involvement in the project makes them biased. A question of whether or not objectivity is attainable is substantial in the evaluation of documentary theater.
Documentary theater is not new but in the last decade, several high profile productions have brought focus to this theatrical form. Documentary theater is subjective yet has the ability to inspire and educate its audience members. The exploration of examples of documentary theatre will help to reduce confusion regarding the purpose of this theatrical genre.
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. Voicings: Ten Plays from the Documentary Theater. Ecco Press. Retrieved 26 September 2012.