Our writing topic.
As part of their spring 2007 advanced theater class, students at Wilton High School (Connecticut) created a documentary play, Voices in Conflict.  They used public domain material about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined with interviews and letters from community members serving in the military and their families. The planned public production of the piece was canceled abruptly by the school’s principal though the precise reason for the play’s retraction remains disputed. Wilton students interviewed for a New York Times article about the controversy claimed school administrators argued “it was not [the students’] place to tell [the audience] what soldiers were thinking,” and were particularly concerned about “inflammatory” subject matter being presented in a documentary form. Following an outcry from veteran’s groups and arts advocates, the students gathered enough outside production support to present a brief run of their show in New York City in June & July of 2007.

Central Course Questions.
Are documentary dramas — defined as performances based on historical events, ethnographic interviews, newspaper reports, and legal transcripts — thriving off-Broadway and in regional and college theatres in spite of or because of controversies like the one at Wilton? What are the stakes regarding reality, truth, and accuracy in these performances? This course posits that resurgent documentary theatre owes some of its successes and controversies to the past 75 years of academic and artistic debates over the production values, ethics, and rhetoric of documentary media. We will take an interdisciplinary view of this subject, examining the appearance and meaning of “documentary” in media, theatre, & visual studies disciplines by exploring writing itself as a process of documenting scholarly analysis. Your writing will navigate the intersections and transmissions among documentary cinematic, photographic, and theatrical practices from the 1920s to the post-9/11 era.

Blog writing assignments will center on our collective analysis of The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman and The Members of Tectonic Theater Project in conversation with the plays and films you select for Essays 1 & 2. The choice of The Laramie Project is made in anticipation of Duke’s own production of The Laramie Project in spring 2011. We will also collaborate on our course blog with  first-year honors students from UNC-Chapel Hill enrolled in a Documentary Theater course with Dr. Ashley Lucas. Over the course of the year, those students will be developing a new documentary performance. We will provide feedback on their efforts. They will provide feedback on your analyses of documentary theater and film.

In addition to reading The Laramie Project and supplementary academic articles, individual students will select (from a list provided) a recent American or British documentary or “verbatim” performance text and a corresponding documentary film. These selections will form the basis of 2 major writing projects (5-7 pages in length). The first will ask you to explore the production repertoire of your selected piece of documentary theater (where has it been produced, how has it been received, what are the choices made in the direction and marketing of the production). The second will as you to compare/contrast the depiction of events, issues, and individuals in your selected documentary play and a corresponding documentary film. Your work will offer an answer to the question: in what ways do concepts of truth, reality, and evidence change across mediums of representation?

For the final project of the semester, students will work collaboratively on devising a National Endowment for the Arts-style grant proposal for a new Duke+Durham Documentary Performance Festival at Durham’s Carolina Theater, a local venue known nationally as the host of the Full-Frame Documentary Film Festival. These final projects will reside on this page for the wider Duke & Durham public to view.

Course Materials.
There are 3 required books (The Laramie Project; Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction and A Pocket Style Manuel) and 1 suggested text (Actions: The Actors’ Thesaurus) to purchase for this class. Visit the Duke Textbook store for information. There will be additional readings assigned and housed on this WordPress site.

What is Writing 20?
Writing 20, the only course taken by all Duke undergraduates, is designed to prepare students for the various writing situations they will encounter in their undergraduate careers, with deliberate attention given to the practices of critical reading, analysis, and substantive revision. The topics and details of each section of this course vary widely; however, students in all sections share the same

  • to engage with the work of others
  • to articulate a position
  • to situate writing within specific contexts

&  practices

  • researching
  • workshopping
  • revising & editing

The Thompson Writing Program’s website discusses these approaches in more detail http://uwp.aas.duke.edu/students/writing-20. You have selected a particular section of Writing 20 with a particular focus — documentary performance — and we will explore a wide range of issues associated with that topic by engaging their particular scholarly terms in writing.

What’s the connection between documentary performance and writing?

I find a film by studying the rushes [unedited sequences] then organize them into a structure that has some kind of narrative push. The film [Titicut Follies] is a report on what I found as a result of a year of intensive study, rather than a preconceived idea of it. I do this to be surprised.

–Frederick Wiseman, filmmaker.

I chose to tell this story [In White America] on the stage, and through historical documents because I wanted to combine the evocative power of the spoken word with the confirming power of historical fact.

–Martin B. Duberman, historian and playwright

In this course, document is a metaphor that addresses our course’s topic and product. Not only is document a synonym for writing itself, but the standards, formats, and ethics of documentation are central to crafting academic scholarship. The Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences have unique and shared conceptions of authoritative sources and original research. These conceptions drive the way academic disciplines collect and analyze evidence through writing but also how individual scholarship influences the wider scholarly and public discourses surrounding a subject, event, or individual.

Documentary performances (which in this course include both theater and film) also grapple with collecting, deciphering, and organizing evidence. While it is generally accepted by audiences and artists that documentaries are constructed not simply found or recorded, there is less agreement about whether the genre is inherently subjective or objective. The means by which a documentary is made, from the choice of subject matter to the method of collecting materials, from the organization and display of those materials to the historical context that surrounds their viewing by an outside audience, all of these factors, just as in a piece of academic writing, influence the effect a documentary has on individual lives, events, social causes and the public discourse surrounding them.

In just one semester, we will just scratch the surface of an expansive field. We will subject creative texts to academic analysis and subject academic texts to scrutiny about creativity and affect. You will often be asked to read and analyze texts (which includes films, photographs, audio recordings, digital material as well as the printed word) for their choices and effectiveness regarding formal, structural elements and artistic, rhetorical savvy. In other words, we will look at what an author/artist says, how s/he says it, and the impact that text has on larger discourses.