A Creative Compass
How Documentary Theatre Can Lead Us Forward Post-Election
In the post-election United States, I have so many questions. What does it mean to be an artist in 2017? How do we move forward in our deeply divided neighborhoods, communities, and country at large? I’m also trying to figure out how to work with my own feelings of artistic helplessness. What can I do? Will it be enough? How do we juggle the traditions of theatre, while also searching for new ways that it can be nimbler in an increasingly urgent world?
In a time when the trend seems to be to generalize, publish, and share headlines without first checking facts, group people together (this happens on either and all "sides"), and make assumptions, we need to dare to tell individual, nuanced, and complex stories. The power lies not in having the answers, but in being willing to ask the questions. While documentary theatre has long been a meaningful strand of the theatrical world, we are now living in a time when it’s a necessity because it is designed to raise questions and wade into the deep, where nothing is simple.
As a documentary theatre artist, I begin without an agenda, other than to simply be curious and willing to listen. That is the first step, and perhaps the ultimate goal as well.
Good stories, ones that inspire connection and truth and action, need to be specific. Documentary theatre is designed for times such as these. For various projects, I’ve interviewed military families, people waiting for the bus, and immigrants explaining what the American Dream means to them. Each and every time, I've arrived with my own assumptions about what I would hear. However, each and every time, I was blown away by how much each specific person shattered my ideas of who they might be and what values they hold dear. This disruption of my preconceived notions has occurred with every person I have interviewed, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious affiliation, or political party. Every human being is specific and we must tell stories that acknowledge and celebrate this inimitability. Specificity is our only hope to connect, co-exist, and break down the barriers that we believe divide us.
Documentary theatre does not require that we present answers, but only that we ask questions. As a documentary theatre artist, I begin without an agenda, other than to simply be curious and willing to listen. That is the first step, and perhaps the ultimate goal as well. We do not go into this work to prove our own point of view by exploiting the stories of others, but to ask questions and then really listen. If we let them, the stories we hear will help us create a map with which we might keep walking in this world, staying curious and open minded as we go. If we allow this perpetual curiosity to inform our journey, then we are always headed in the right direction, even if we never reach the destination. As artists, let’s let go of our need for answers and wake up to the realization that we cannot afford not to ask the questions.
When you ask someone a question in an interview and then give them space to answer, something magical happens. People aren’t used to be given the opportunity to share their story, no judgments or strings attached. When I begin an interview, the person often says, "I'm happy to tell you my story. It's not very interesting, but..." Not many people believe what they have to offer is valuable in a larger context, and documentary theatre lets us know that we all have something to contribute; our experiences are meaningful. How wonderful would it be to give this gift of listening to as many people as we can?
The students let go of simply trying to be individually creative—a largely ego-driven pursuit limited by their own imaginations—and embraced true innovation by exploring the idea of listening and reacting to the ideas around them.
I have created documentary theatre with The Perpetual Visitors Theatre Company and high school and college students, and shared techniques with teachers across academic fields. There has never been a shortage of people willing to be interviewed, nor a shortage of curiosity for the makers. Documentary theatre is low-cost, high-impact, and promotes collaboration between disciplines, communities, and what we think of as “artistic” and “non-artistic” entities. When I create a documentary play, I work with government organizations, community centers, churches, workers’ unions, and even pet stores; everyone involved benefits from engaging in this exchange of experiences.
Documentary theatre invites an audience that is as broad as the interviews themselves. I always invite interviewees and their circle of community to the finished production, and building this kind of expanded audience is one of the best things documentary theatre has to offer. Often those interviewed are not regular theatregoers, and we are all made richer for their presence. No one likes to be talked about as if they aren't there in the room, and when we make theatre from real stories, the real people behind these stories are gathered in and empowered.
The cost of listening and retelling these stories is minimal. The price of shutting our ears to this symphony of human experiences could cost us the kind of world worth living in. The rewards of this work are beyond what we can imagine. We cannot afford to exist in our separate bubbles any longer. We must tell the stories that we are not hearing on the news and dig deeper than the media dares. Documentary theatre challenges us to ask questions of people outside our own experience, discover common ground, and acknowledge where we disagree. It is time to stretch ourselves and our craft to give voice to these too often untold stories, and in doing so, make the theatre a model for how the rest of the world can break out of the echo chamber and expand its horizons.
In her book And Then, You Act: Making Art in an Unpredictable World, Anne Bogart includes an anecdote from dramaturg Morgan Jenness, who once asked Mother Teresa what she could do to help feed hungry people in the US, fearing that theatre was not enough. Mother Teresa replied, “There are many famines. In my country there is a famine of the body. In your country there is a famine of the spirit. And that is what you must feed."
The time is now. The artist is you. All you need to know is what it is that you wish to know. Ask the first question, and see where it leads you. We’re all depending on it.