I just found out that Burning Coal Theatre (Raleigh, NC) is producing the acclaimed but controversial documentary play, My Name Is Rachel Corrie, for one weekend only, May 19-22, as part of their “Wait until you see this” second-stage series. Click here to order tickets.
Our guest last week, Professor Carol Martin, has an essay about Corrie in the anthology Get Real: Documentary Theater Past and Present anthology (Palgrave MacMillan 2009). The piece is titled “Living Simulations: The Use of Media in Documentary in the UK, Lebanon and Israel.” Those of you interested in the play between documentary film and theater forms should check out her article and, if you’re around, Burning Coal’s production in May. I’ll be there. I’m excited to see what a local company does with this script.
This post is a call for artistic staff for next year’s Me Too Monologues from our very own Afftene Taylor and Kimi Goffe. This year’s production was amazing with audiences of 750+! If you missed it, check out the Me Too YouTube channel to see what you missed. Be sure to get on board for 2012!
The 2012 director/producer are accepting applications (read: 3 short questions) for the Production Team for the Me Too Monologues 2012! Your responses are due Sunday, March 27th to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Production Team Positions
–Photographer and Videographer (can be two people)
*Please note: the asst. director and producer would preferably be non-seniors, so that they can carry their knowledge over to next year’s Me Too Production team.
If you aren’t ready to take a leadership role– don’t worry! We might also need a couple extra people to help publicize and select monologues, so if you’d be interested, put that in your application as well.
Recap: let us know by Sunday, March 27th, if:
1) you’d like to be on the Me Too Monologue Production team in any capacity
2) you are interested in a position listed above
1. Have you been involved in Me Too Monologues before? How?
2. What position are you applying for?
3. Tell us why you’d like to be involved and any ideas you have for next year’s show.
Afftene Taylor and Kimi Goffe
Me Too Monologues Director and Producer
Since my feedback has been centered on paying attention to the specificity of expression within your characters’ testimony — switches amongst verb tenses, the distinction of different kinds of punctuation marks, the colloquial turns of phrase that marks region and culture, and the vagaries of individual word choice — I found a Brecht poem that speaks to why honoring the everyday language is a matter of ethics and politics as well as a means of developing characterization in documentary theater.
I offer this poem with full awareness that the Laramie interviewees aren’t offered to us without alteration; Tectonic has put their stamp on their informants. Brecht is also idealizing (a bit) the “theater of daily life whose setting is the street” as a way to draw a distinction between the kind of wholly immersive acting where the audience interprets actor and character as one person and the kind of demonstration/performance that is essential to the political purpose of distantiation. The actor who stands alongside his character is someone the audience can address, interrogate just as they would a man on the street. Such freedom to question both the actor and the role gives way to questioning the entire scenario presented. Why are things they way they are? Not because of fate but because of action and choice, entirely human and alterable things.
I hope this little reminder of Brecht might help as you work on treating those props and costumes as tools for transformation that allows you to give full presence to your characters’ words but just as easily allows you to drop that piece and move on to the next demonstration.
The entire poem is over 3 pages long, so I’ve done a few edits here and there.
“On Everyday Theatre”
Written during the “Crisis Years” (1929-1933)
Translator Edith Anderson
You artists who perform plays
In great houses under electric suns
Before the hushed crowd, pay a visit some time
To that theatre whose setting is the street.
The everyday, thousandfold, fameless
But vivid, earthy theatre fed by the daily human contact
Which takes place in the street.
Here the woman from next door imitates the landlord:
Demonstrating his flood of talk she makes it clear
How he tried to turn the conversation
From the burst water pipe. [...]
Gives us the preacher at his sermon, referring the poor
To the rich pastures of paradise. How useful
Such theatre is though, serious and funny
And how dignified! They do not, like parrot or ape
Imitate just for the sake of imitation, unconcerned
What they imitate, just to show that they
can imitiate; no they
Have a point to put across.
Take that man on the corner: he is showing how
An accident took place. This very moment
He is delivering the driver to the verdict of the crowd. The
Sat behind the steering wheel, and now
He imitates the man who was run over, apparently
An old man. Of both he gives
Only so much as to make the accident intelligible, and yet
Enough to make you see them. But he shows neither
As if the accident had been unavoidable. [...]
There is no superstition
About this eyewitness, he
Shows mortals as victims not of the stars, but
Only of their errors.
His earnestness and the accuracy of his imitation. He
Knows that much depends on his exactness: whether the
Escapes ruin, whether the injured man
Is compensated. Watch him
Repeat now what he did just before. Hesitantly
Calling on his memory for help, uncertain
Whether his demonstration is good, interrupting himself
And asking someone else to
Correct him on a detail. This
Observe with reverence!
And with surprise
Observe, if you will, one thing: that this imitator
Never loses himself in his imitation. He never entirely
Transforms himself into the man he is imitation. He always
Remains the demonstrator, the one not involved. [...]
Our demonstrator at the street corner
Is no sleepwalker who much not be addressed. He is
No high priest holding divine service. At any moment
You can interrupt him; he will answer you
Quite calmly and when you have spoken with him
Go on with his performance.
But you, do not say: that man
Is not an artist. By setting up such a barrier
Between yourselves and the world, you simply
Expel yourselves from the world. If you thought him
No artist he might think you
Not human, and that
Would be a worse reproach. Say rather:
He is an artist because he his human. We
May do what he does more perfectly and
Be honoured for it, but what we do
Is something universal, human, something hourly
Practiced in the busy street, almost
as much a part of life as eating and breathing.
Thus your playacting
Harks back to practical matters. Our masks, you should say
Are nothing special insofar as they are only masks:
[...] In short
Mask, verse and quotation are common, but uncommon
The grandly conceived mask, the beautifully spoken verse
And apt quotation.
But to make matters clear: even if you improved upon
What the man at the corner did, you would be doing less
Than him if you
Made your theatre less meaningful — with lesser provocation
Less intense in its effect on the audience — and
I love making theater. The process guarantees that no matter how many times I’ve read, heard, or watched a play I will always be struck by a character, a scene, or a single line in a wholly new way. It’s a feeling similar to what Naomi expressed Tuesday night — even though she’s been a performer in a previous production of Laramie, this time she’s noticing different things, wanting to emphasize different ideas to the audience of this production of that same play.
Tuesday, watching the clips from our various media sources I was struck by a line that appears very early in the 95 minute movie version of Laramie that Kaufman made for HBO. (FYI, the play’s running time clocks in at about 2 hours and 30 minutes; in that time difference between play and film we can see the power of editing, condensing, rearranging a “true” story.) The line that stopped me in my tracks appears in the film’s opening “chapter,” which draws most of its material from Moments #1-12 of the play script. It is uttered by the Baptist Minister, played by Michael Emerson, who is best known to devotees of LOST as the duplicitous Ben Linus. Before that series, though, he made a particular name for himself playing Oscar Wilde in what I would argue is Moises Kaufman’s first “moment” organized play, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde (1996).
The minister stands before his congregation, a similar performance as suggested by the script, and extols what he knows to be true because the Bible tells him so. Scientific experts say the earth 5-6 billion years old. The Bible says it is 6 thousand years old. What to believe? His response: The word is either sufficient or it is not.
Now I’m working outside my theological comfort zone, so you’ll have to bear with me. I think the minister might assert that it should be spelled Word, as not just any “word” but the Word, from God’s lips. I remember with piercing clarity a reading from the book of John that I read for my college’s Christmas candlelight services. I was given this passage particularly because as an actor I knew where to put the emphasis so that the complex idea might be better understood. I’ll only quote a part of it, here, for brevity’s sake:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
I stray into the Bible because I think belief in the word motivates those who make theater in a similar way that it motivates devoutly religious people. The biggest difference is the word’s origin. For the congregants of the minister’s church it is God’s Word, for the members of Tectonic it is Laramie’s word(s), stories of/from a multi-faceted community. The idea of taking issue with God’s Word would be unfathomable for the minister’s flock. There is only one way to see, one path to follow. For Tectonic, collecting and presenting many (contradictory?) voices offers the audience multiple perspectives, many paths to follow. The word is either sufficient or it is not.
Within the context of an evangelical religious community, that phrase asserts there is no word save God’s Word (conveyed through the Bible). Within the context of a theater making community like Tectonic, the words that are important are those spoken by everyday individuals. In that context, the phrase is actually a provocation. Tectonic’s mission, articulated by Moises Kaufman, is to explore “times when the ideas, beliefs, and ideologies that are the pillars of a certain culture at a certain time … surface around a specific event [because] when that happens the event itself operates as a lightening rod that allows us to see clearly, for a brief time, what ideas that society is made of.” For Tectonic, ideas, beliefs and ideologies emerge in conversation, our words illuminate the very structures upon which our communities are built. It is only by collecting, organizing, performing those words do we begin to see where the ideas are rooted and, possibly, how they might be changed. The word is either sufficient or it is not. Laramie presents citizens’ in conversation with each other and with outsiders, trying to come to grips with what has happened. It also argues (subtly) that the intervention of the theater company in this event/moment as a positive catalyst for change if not within Laramie proper, then certainly within the communities that stage the play and recognize themselves in the stories told.
I have mentioned in another post about how differently Laramie treats the courtroom as compared to Execution of Justice. In Execution, because the jury verdict was so disproportionate to the crime and the mitigation (the “Twinkie defense”) seemed a blatant smokescreen to avoid the larger conversation about the role homophobia played in the crime, the play argues that the legal ruling flies in the face of our commonly held notions of justice. The play’s trial of the trial cannot change the legal outcome of the case; however, it provides a space in which grievances can be addressed and asks that its audience scrutinize any further trials to make sure justice is served inside the courtroom the next time. The word is either sufficient or it is not. If it isn’t, as in the Dan White trial, then we find other words that are sufficient.
In Laramie the courtroom verdict seems appropriate. While the media coverage talks about the case as a “hate crime,” it is important to remember that it was the federal kidnapping charge that prompted prosecutors to seek the death penalty. There was no state or federal hate crime statute at the time that would have produced a capital charge. Even now, Wyoming does not have a state hate crimes law; the federal law (named after Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. both who died within 4 months of each other in crimes motivated by bias) was not passed and signed into law until October 28, 2009. Nevertheless, for Tectonic, the courtroom produces a verdict that answers (for whatever legal reason) the nature of the crime and it is Dennis Shepard who is given the space to pronounce mercy on the convicted killers of his son.
What we can see from the 20/20 episode is the flip side of Laramie‘s engagement with the Matthew Shepard case. It’s a question that motivates the Ten Years After epilogue to Laramie: has the play unfairly represented not only the events but the people of the town it chronicles? In Act 1 of Laramie, Jedadiah says that Laramie has become a place defined by a crime, like “Waco. Or Jasper.” (Jasper, TX is where James Byrd Jr. was killed.) In Ten Years Later we hear citizens complain that Laramie is now a place defined by a play, The Laramie Project. The desire to introduce another perspective on the “story” pulses through the 20/20 episode, fully facilitated by informants like Cal Rerucha, Kristin Davis, Aaron McKinney, and Russell Henderson. Ironically, whereas Tectonic originally cast itself as an outside force that could, along with the citizens, examine the community that produced the events of October 6/7, 1998 in positive ways it is now presented as promoting a monolithic voice of that same community, one that overrides the “real” voices of dissent. The word is either sufficient or it is not.
In their 20/20 interviews, Russell and Aaron offer themselves as victims acting under (bad) advice of legal counsel, which forced them to present the circumstances of the crime as tainted by homophobia when that was not true. Their punishments, cast in this light, are presented as overly harsh and other witnesses seem to have been denied their chance to speak, to tell about other circumstances which might have changed the outcome of the case. In this scenario, Laramie appears the dominant narrative against which other victims of the crime must work in order to be heard.
So we’re back to the paradox of documentary performance: how can a company challenge the dominant narrative surrounding an event without reasserting that its version of the truth is now unassailable? While Peter Weiss argues that politically active documentary theater has no obligation to tell the side of a story that represents the status quo, the conflict over The Laramie Project‘s version of the story, one that supports such a status quo force as a trial with a “right” verdict, illustrates the fine line between challenge and conformity.
It is difficult in the case of Laramie, a town in a state where there is still no hate crime legislation, in a country where individual states have passed discriminatory constitutional amendments that deny LGBTQ citizens equal rights (here is a link to one in the works for North Carolina described by its promoters) and a federal government whose own legislation (the Defense of Marriage Act) supports this discrimination. While it is impossible to discount the desire to see greater nuances in this case, there is still a dominant narrative about silence, fear, homophobia and violence that must be challenged. In Laramie. At Duke. In the US. Even if we see our historical time as one where there is some movement towards safety and equality for LGBTQ citizens, The Laramie Project is still one of the most successful set of stories to provoke self-reflection, social action, and greater tolerance if not actual acceptance. The word is either sufficient or it is not.
So what’s to be done? And I’m really interested in hearing ideas here because I’ve been struggling with this conundrum for the past 10+ years of studying, making, and writing about documentary media and performance. One idea I’ve advocated is to make multiple documentary pieces about the same event instead of just one. In my documentary courses, students explore one event chronicled by a documentary play and by a documentary film to notice the power of perspective and the divergence (and convergence) of source material as well as the distinction of medium that influences the way a story is told. Another idea would be for documentary companies/filmmakers to revisit the site(s) of previous work with a fresh group of collaborators and a willingness to make a wholly new piece of theater that can challenge, in productive ways, new, dissenting voices that now make up a community. I’m not sure Ten Years Later does this although it seems motivated by such an impulse. Other suggestions? Does our particular awareness about the paradox at the heart of documentary theater change or influence the choices we make as we rehearse this play?
Two articles were at the center of our class discussion this past Tuesday night: Peter Weiss‘ “The Materials and the Methods” (1968; Theater Quarterly 1971) and Carol Martin‘s “Bodies of Evidence” (TDR 2006). Two questions also dominated:
What is “documentary theater”?
Why write/perform “documentary theater” versus a “regular” play?
Since Weiss’ Theatre Quarterly article was a reprint of a piece he delivered at the Brecht-Dialogue in East Berlin in 1968 and published in Theatre Heaute that same year, I we should start by remembering the global upheavals of that year, for example:
- protests by students and workers spread across Eastern European countries like Yugoslavia and Poland and are clamped down by Communist leaders. The culmination of these repressions comes with the brutal ending of a rare thaw of rights and privileges enjoyed during the “Prague Spring” by the Russian invasion of (then) Czechoslovakia,
- chaos erupts at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago where anti-Vietnam War demonstrators clash with delegates and politicians in front of live television cameras
- Civil Rights actions are met with violence, particularly across the American South, culminating in the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, TN and President Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act, just a week after.
- a spring of general strikes and protests in France precipitates the collapse of the government of Charles de Gaulle; student groups and labor unions also joing forces in Italy and Argentina to protest government policies regarding wages, employment and education.
The history lesson was a lead-in to highlighting the wave of transformations happening in the theater world around the same time. Again, just a few examples.
- The abolition of UK theater censorship with the passage of the 1968 Theatres Act and the dismantling of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office.
- The rise of directors like Peter Brook, whose book The Empty Space is published in 1968 and whose 1970 production of A Midsummers’ Night Dream will forever change stagings of Shakespeare in the UK and beyond.
- The debut of Jerzy Grotowski’s Polish Lab Theatre in Britain and the publication of his manifesto Towards a Poor Theater extends Brecht’s notion of a utilitarian approach to performance but to make the actor the center of the production’s world.
- The Broadway premiere of Hair and the explosion of off-Broadway and experimental companies in the US like The Living Theatre, whose controversial, groundbreaking production of Paradise Now dissolved the boundaries between performer and audience, The Open Theater, and La MaMa (whose founder Ellen Stewart just passed away).
- In a 1965 issue of The [Tulane] Drama Review, scholar Richard Schechner edited articles that explored/explained the new trend towards “happenings” and environmental theater, where expected rules of text, acting, and reception were shattered:
The profoundest political implications of Happenings are their rejection of packaging, not by parody, which is the Absurdist technique, but by forcing on the receiver the job of doing the work usually done by the artist/educator/propagandist. Thesis play and figurative painting give way to a set of messages which the receiver must decipher; indeed the “messages” are often random impulses which the receiver may construct into messages or leave alone, depending upon his attitude. — Schechner, “Happenings,” pg. 231
Not only were American theater artists embracing new ways of making and presenting performances, but the very notion that theater was happening off-stage, in daily life or that daily life could be explored as performance, would open the doors to an expansion of theatrical forms and topics that could be rendered by dramatists, directors, actors, and academics.
Weiss himself followed up his critically acclaimed Marat/Sade (which under the direction of Peter Book won a Tony Award for Best Play in 1966) with The Investigation, a documentary drama about the 1963-1965 Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. The Auschwitz trials were lesser known proceedings compared with the Nurenberg trials (1945-1947). In contrast to docudrama representations of the Allied forces prosecution of Nazi war criminals, such as Stanley Kramer’s Oscar winning 1961 Judgment at Nurenberg, Weiss was adamant that The Investigation avoid a courtroom setting. While he used the Auschwitz trial transcript with scrupulous felicity, Weiss resisted realism in favor of a poetic mediation about the reach of evil from Nazi officers and soldiers to “ordinary” Germans who did nothing in the face of the genocide. Interestingly, one of the most acclaimed productions of Weiss’ The Investigation in recent years was staged by Rwandan pharmacist turn theater artist Dorcy Rugamba and performed in French by a company of Rwandan and Congolese actors. These performers do not change a word of the text, but the entire context for the trial dramatized in the script shifts from Auschwitz to Rwanda.
In his manifesto about documentary theater, Weiss seems to acknowledge both the worldwide unrest and the theater’s particular place in addressing social issues. The documentary form allows theater to drawn on factual sources, sources overlooked or glossed by mass media, and bring particular theatrical tools of storytelling to transform an audience’s understanding of present-day events as well as the history that has brought us to a particular moment in time. This theater should never be mistaken, however, for political action.
In the manifesto, Weiss makes somewhat contradictory assertions. Documentary theater should never alter its sources only condense, select, and edit. But distillation and selection are not benign actions. Documentary theater is a reaction against distortions, against one-sided arguments, but must be unapologetic in taking sides, especially in the face of political/government repression, military aggression, and economic deprivation. Documentary theater insists that reality is knowable and thus capable of being changed through action. However, that same documentary theater should press the representational boundaries and interrupt linear time, craft dialogue that reflect everyday speech but in heightened and rhythmic ways, and work environmentally, letting dramaturgical structure emerge from the material.
The question quickly arose about the effectiveness of theater created for strictly, primarily political purposes. If a “fiction” play provides a window onto the “real” world, even though it does not trace its origin to archival material, who is to say that it is any less political than a play based on “facts”? Why does a great deal of documentary theater pass out of theatrical repertoire? (How many recent productions of Waiting for Lefty or even Twilight: Los Angeles do we see on American stages?) What are the risks of tying a script too closely to a particular historical moment or event? Once a text is fixed or finalized for production, does it risk losing the interrogatory power it had in its creation — the ability to tie the here and now with the there and then? What is it about plays like The Laramie Project that enjoy an active production life? Are they simply “good” plays that happen to be documentary plays? Shouldn’t the universal standard of “good” or “affecting” be a playwright or theater company’s goal that might override whether a play is based on real events or wholly fictional?
While we raised more questions than we answered, these concerns were indicative of the central questions driving Carol Martin’s article. [FYI, Carol Martin will be a special guest respondent and visiting scholar for our first week of performances in April.] Martin examines the post 9/11 documentary theater era as one characterized by a similiar paradox as the documentary theater Weiss describes. It is a theater that “strategically deploys the appearance of truth, while inventing its own particular truth through elaborate aesthetic devices, …” (10). While documentary theater, unlike other forms of performance, has the “capacity to stage historiography,” to show the very process of constructing truth through a combination of ethnography and archival research, it can also fall prey to the same kind of grand narratives and uncritical faith in documents that it wishes to critique. “Documentary theatre emphasizes certain kinds of memory and buries others” (11). While the desire to “set the record straight” is an admirable and important goal motivating documentary theater artists, they must remember that “There is no ‘really real’ anywhere in the world of representation” (14).
This strand of class discussion had to end as we shifted our attention to a read-through of Acts 2 and 3 of Laramie; however, we concluded by returning to one of Martin’s most provocative and productive tensions, a tension that we see dramatized both in the script and, in the coming weeks, in the staging process of our “version” of Laramie:
[W]hat is real and what is true are not necessarily the same. A text can be fictional yet true. A text can be nonfictional yet untrue. Documentary theatre is an imperfect answer that needs our obsessive analytical attention especially since, in ways unlike any other form of theatre, it claims to have bodies of evidence (15).