For our first week of performances, we enjoyed the company of our first distinguished scholar: Professor Carol Martin (NYU). I heard Professor Martin deliver the final keynote at the Acting with Facts: Performing the Real on Stage and Screen 1990-2010 at the University of Reading (UK) this past September. When I got back to the states I immediately approached our chair, Sarah Beckwith, about the possibility of supporting her visit to Duke. We are also lucky to have another friend of Dr. Martin’s in the department–Dr. Claire Conceison–who concurred that she was one of the best scholars working in the field of documentary theater and threw her support behind making the visit happen.
Some of you in the cast/crew of Laramie were able to make Dr. Martin’s talk. For those of you who didn’t, Miriam did record it and, with Carol’s permission, once that file is digitized, we’ll put it up on the blog and Theater Studies YouTube channel. The talk was terrific and while we wait for video, I’ll do my best to give you a sense of some of the artists/texts at the center of her discussion.
Carol’s essay, “Bodies of Evidence,” from the 2006 issue of TDR dedicated to Documentary Theater was one of the first pieces the Laramie class read and discussed when we began class meetings in January. As I mentioned in my introduction to her talk on Friday, that piece was a much needed addition to a field of study that had largely focused on the genre conventions of documentary theater, on what was or was not a “documentary play” based on a text’s structure and source materials. Carol’s editorial theorizes how documentary texts function, what they do in the world, and how those functions articulate and interrogate claims of truth through varying engagements of “the real.”
On Friday, Carol’s lecture illustrated the evolution in her thinking from that 2006 piece. She spoke in terms evident in her most recent collection, Dramaturgy of the Real on the World Stage (Palgrave MacMillan 2010). That anthology combines scholarly articles (some from that 2006 issue of TDR) with a host of international scripts that fall under Carol’s expanded term of “theatre of the real.” She includes texts and artists that interrogate the “document” or “archive” as a privileged space of presumed stability and insist that “truth” is contextual, multiple, subject to manipulation in both the dramas of everyday life (politics, culture, interpersonal space) and dramas performed on a designated theater “stage”.
As examples of this “theater of the real,” Carol discussed four companies/texts in detail. Below is just a taste/summary of this work based on my own research and notes from her lecture. I encourage those of you who have interest in the documentary form (either expanded as Carol suggests or more “classic” in terms of its boundaries) to investigate the work of these artists yourselves and see the possibilities, tensions, provocations they offer.
Founded as a student theater group in 1964, by the 1980s, Theater of the Eighth Day had become the most well-known avant-garde theater company in Poland. Find out their history here. During the years of Communist rule, the company was under surveillance by the secret police (as was every citizen and every facet of life). The Files is their reperformance of their participation in surveillance culture, their own “secret” history, as well as the means by which that history was collected (by agents planted, not terribly stealthfully, in their midst). Even with our healthy skepticism about government documents in the US, by and large Americans still give archives and historical materials the benefit of authenticity and inherent objectivity. According to Carol, The Files demonstrates that the archive “itself is the institutionalization of lies,” through the company’s language of physical gesture and its doubling/replaying of “scenes” as recorded by the documents and remembered by the company members themselves. As Poland still grapples with its informant past, Theater of the Eighth Day replays its own complicated history with state power with humor and physical abstraction while confounding any comfortable nostalgic perspective upon the “good old bad days.”
To show how far Theater of the Eight Day has come in the eyes of the Polish government since the collapse of Communism in 1989, here is a film of their work created in support of the country’s pursuit of the title “European Capital of Culture in 2016”.
Rewind: A Cantata for Voice, Tape and Testimony by Peter Miller. In 2006, Miller, a South African composer, created a cantata to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The piece uses shards of recorded testimony from the TRC hearings, integrating the voices of victims and perpetrators into the libretto and score and is generally celebratory of the TRC’s approach to trade justice for “truth.” Carol alluded to Catherine Cole’s extended review of Rewind (available in Theater 38.3 (2008): 85-109), which discusses the performative acts of speaking and collecting testimony that Rewind refashions as well as the performance of reconciliation and national “truth” undertaken by the TRC. [Catherine was a visitor to Duke in the fall in conjunction with our production of The Beatification of Area Boy.]
A preview of Rewind courtesy of the Southbank Centre channel on YouTube:
Next, Carol discussed the work of Dutch playwright (actor, director and filmmaker), Adelheid Roosen, author of The Veiled Monologues (inspired by and following a similar structure as Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues) and Is.Man.
Is.Man might have caught your attention when the New York Times review of the piece opened with a discussion of the unplanned exit of the play’s central actor, Youssef Sjoerd Idilbi, who walked out of a performance because of sound/headset difficulties at the play’s 2007 debut at St Ann’s Warehouse. Of greater interest is the play’s construction — built from interviews Roosen conducted with immigrant men in prison in Holland for “honor killings” — which blends video, monologue that shifts from father to son as it constructs a genealogy of violence, interspersed with moments of Turkish dance and music. The goal is to complicate the perception of “honor killings” as somehow foreign and uncivilized, a taint on Dutch culture, by offering an in-depth look into one family (a family created out of dozens of different interviews with incarcerated men).
Here’s a trailer for the production of Is.Man that ran at St. Ann’s Warehouse in NYC in 2007.
The final piece Carol explored was Rabih Mroué’s Three Posters, a discussion of which is included in her 2006 edition of TDR and in her new book, Dramaturgy of the Real on the World Stage.
The piece was inspired by the story of suicide bomber Jamal Sati who, in 1985, detonated 880 pounds of dynamite (born on his own and the back of a donkey) at the headquarters of the Israeli Military governor in Hasbayya. Sati’s “martyr tape” was broadcast on Tele-Liban, the government owned Lebanese public television station during their eight o’clock evening news hour. In 2000 Mroué and his collaborator, novelist and journalist Elias Khoury, found Sati’s unedited tape, which showed three “takes” before the bomber got the final performance that would be released to the media upon his death. These rehearsals become the framework for Three Posters, and, as an example of “theater of the real,” an occasion for theater to examine the process of documentation, usually a means of recording the past, but which, in relationship to martyr videos, becomes a way to record the future. Sati’s performs his martyr status for the camera but that status is only confirmed and spectacularized upon news of his demise.
Mroué and collaborator Elias Khoury have enacted this performance/video at the Ayloul Festival in Beirut (September 2000), Vienna Festival (2001), Welt in Basel (2001), KunstenFESTIVALdesArts in Brussels (2002), In Transit in Berlin (2002), Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona (2002), Theatre der Welt in Bonn (2002), and Witte de With in Rotterdam (2002). Mroué just opened his first solo show last month in London with a piece titled I, the Undersigned The People are Demanding, whose change in name marks the artist’s attempt to respond to the ever unfolding events in the Middle East. Since he nabbed the 2010 Spaulding Gray Award, which comes with a stipend to develop a new work and a promised production of said work at the American performance spaces which support the award (including PS 122 in NYC and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh) perhaps we will finally get a chance to see him in the states.
A trailer for Three Posters courtesy of YouTube