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True Stories (nonfiction theatre) … a few thoughts

16 April 2014

During the recent 2014 Playwriting Festival at the NSW Writers’ Centre (directed by my fellow 7-ONer Vanessa Bates) I chaired a session True Stories, about nonfiction theatre. These are a few thoughts or ‘provocations’ I had for the audience and my fellow speakers: Angela Betzien, Jane Phegan and Katie Pollock.

Verbatim, reality, true stories, documentary or the theatre of fact. It’s changed a lot since, for example, Paul Brown’s Aftershocks about the 1989 Newcastle earthquake. There are lots of approaches to this diverse genre. The 4 of us on this panel have all worked with ‘true stories’, be they transcripts, interviews, archival materials, recordings, real life theatre, Royal Commissions or documentation.

What’s behind this hunger for factual theatre? Why does it appeal to writers, companies and audiences? What are the strengths and pleasures of the genre? And what are its pitfalls? More than one person or company has fallen victim to the cut-and-paste ‘we’ll just edit this together’ syndrome …

What happens to theatricality when you make the stage the domain of rational debate?

Or do these works offer audiences a doorway into a subject whose density might otherwise be difficult to negotiate?

Have metaphor and imaginary worlds become suspect in our age of flux and insecurity?

For some, a problem with the the genre is that often the characters don’t change significantly during the course of the play. Does that matter if the audience experiences a journey? Or in the case of a community project, if the participants’ involvement is transformative?

Tragic, or at least serious events seem factual theatre’s preference. A tribunal, a small-town murder, the demise and rebirth of a sporting team. Are there any documentary theatre works that are primarily comic? Or does comedy writing require a manufacturing or refinement of material incompatible with the doco ethos?
In common with classical tragedy, we usually have a pretty good idea of how the story ends. We know that King Lear’s decision to divide his kingdom will result in disaster. That Antigone’s defiance will not end well for her. Our interest is in seeing how these narratives unfold, and what resonances Shakespeare’s or Sophocles’ way of telling stirs in us.

Verbatim, witness literature, storytellers’ theatre—they developed from oral history and community arts. What happens when you take these works out of context and put them onto mainstages at $60+ a pop?

One of the biggest issues for this genre is: How to be more than journalism for the stage? Do current events, recent history, digitally translated for endless replay, restrict the possibilities for theatrical intervention? Limit metaphorical strategies, comic innovation, or poetic reworking? Or is it that they present a different challenge? We know the facts, can pull up images, sound-bytes, court transcripts, first-hand accounts, with the click of a mouse or the touch of an app. So is the task then for playwrights and theatre makers: What can we add to, or do with, the facts to make the theatrical experience bigger and more meaningful than a montage of news clips or a magazine article?

What about drama-doco hybrids? Literature is created on both sides of the frontier that divides fact from fiction. Words written about the real world have consequences in the real world. Is this is a border that should be defended? Though of course, writers have been crossing this border for centuries, mashing made-up narratives with polemic, with reportage.
Les Miserables—the 1862 novel not the musical—isn’t only the tale of an emancipated convict who discovers love and justice, but also a treatise on, well, almost everything from cloistered religious orders to the sewers of Paris. And this flipping between fiction and factual digression is signalled up front on page 1: ‘There is something we might mention that has no bearing whatsoever on the tale we have to tell—not even on the background.

What are our ethical responsibilities when we work with people’s real experiences? With a community’s desire to make its voice heard?

Which brings me to a final question for now: How? Often a more difficult question than ‘Why’. How do we go about creating theatre of fact? (Related to this, there’s an interesting article A Search for New Realities Documentary Theatre in Germany
 by Thomas Irmer in TDR: The Drama Review 50:3 (T191) Fall 2006.)

I’m going to end with these words from the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, written in 1950. He’s talking about a poet, but I like to think the sentiments apply just as much to playwrights:

You who wronged a simple man

Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
You may kill him—another will be born.
Deeds and words shall be recorded.

From → Miscellany, Plays

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