fbpx A Creative Compass | HowlRound Theatre Commons

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?

four actors on stage
(Left to right): Teddy Crecelius, Christa Brown, Melissa Bergstrom, Sumit Sharma, and Emily Duggan in Big Work by Melissa Bergstrom and Kate Marple, with the Perpetual Visitors Theatre Company. Photo by Kate Marple.

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.

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark


Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First

What really resonated with me about this piece is that it highlights the importance of involvement of all kinds of people in documentary theater. Starting with the interviewer, the importance of not allowing your own assumptions about a person or lifestyle affect the interview process. No matter what level of objectivity one can claim to have, as humans, we come always have preconceived notions and judgements. Being a good theater artist and interviewer in this process means allowing those assumptions to be thrown out the window. Time and time again, it is made clear that humans have an unbelievable capacity to break the mold and redefine stereotype. What makes documentary theater so special is the fact that the expectation is not to “present answers”, but to ask questions. In its truest sense, documentary theater holds up a mirror to the real world. It does not place judgement and does not necessarily provide the answers to the difficult questions that often arise. Especially in the current political climate, it is unbelievably important. You speak of the importance of everyone stepping out of their separate bubbles and collaborating. Change can only continue to happen through theater if we as artists push the boundaries of what is being shown in other media. Long gone are the days of the “every-man” protagonist. The true story is in the voices of the people who have not previously had one. The stigma of elitist theater needs to end so that these stories can reach everyone.

Thanks, Patty! I firmly believe that more in ever, in a world where all kinds of media outlets want to be able to present the right answers, best solutions, etc. theatre has an opportunity to tell specific stories that go deeper. Ironically enough, when you are mindful as a documentary theatre artist about talking to interviewees without trying to make their stories fit into a preconceived notion you have about an issue, you are able to present a stronger and more powerful performance onstage and this DOES move people to dialogue and action. In the end, the audience will be able to walk away with some new ideas and perspectives about the specific issue, possible solutions, and the complexity of the world in which we live. That vision gives me hope!

You're so right, Patty. Presenting answers can be quite subjective; they often come from one side of the argument and are usually biased, whether intentional or not. By instead asking questions, we are all invited into the conversation - something so desperately needed now. I agree that the "every-man" protagonist is gone. Though we are all living the so-called "human experience," we should recognize people from diverse backgrounds and new stories to tell - beginning in theatre. I can only hope that one day mainstream theatre is incredibly diverse and inclusive, and I think Melissa is right in saying documentary theatre will begin to introduce that perspective to audiences.

Something that has always interested me with documentary theatre is its ability to be so immediate. This form allows for the collecting of interviews and news stories of the very recent present and create a piece of meaningful art for an audience that is still feeling the effects of that event. It has the ability to compile events and show them to a public that needs a way to process them, and what better way than to see them played out in real time.
I loved that you mentioned how you go into the process without an agenda for the piece. In my documentary theatre class, we have been discussing the idea of bias in theatre, and it is admirable that in interviews, the stories affect you before they fit into an agenda for your work. This opens up theatre to all people, like you mentioned in the article, and therefore audience members can be just as affected by the stories as you were in your interview. Documentary theatre is such an accessible medium, and it should feel welcoming to regular theatre goers and people new to theatre alike.
In one of my other classes we discussed the Milton Project by Pearl D'Amour. They are creating theatrical pieces in Miltons across the country (Milton, Mass is coming up this spring!) in which they talk to local residents who live in the town and compile stories from them. The whole town is invited to the piece and the residents who are mentioned in it are actually addressed by the actors. The Miltons are usually smaller towns that might not have access to theatre, but they are welcomed into a performance space because their town's experience is put on stage. It's a very unifying experience for the whole town, and they get to experience theatre that is completely personalized to them. I think this is a great example of documentary theatre in which the story on stage is one that people can relate to, even without familiarity of theatre. Documentary theatre presents stories that many people can recognize and reflect on as a group, no matter how familiar they are with the medium. Even if people aren't familiar with the actual events, there is a universality to the experience of the characters because they are based on real people. Your article is a great reminder of what documentary should and can be as we all face the effects of the election and need to find ways to group together to reflect and react.

Mary, I completely agree with what you said about this article being what Documentary Theatre should and can be. I also think that this medium may become bias in the hands of those who have the intention of only being on one side. Nonetheless, Documentary Theatre, as you said, is so accessible and welcoming because everyone somehow searches the truth in theater. The Milton Project is such a good example! I have met so many wonderful people and they have told me such wonderful stories worth making a play out of, but I had no idea if anyone would like to see something like that. I didn't know there would be a name for it, until I took the Documentary Theatre class. Documentary Theatre can really bring people together because I really think everybody has a story about their lives worth telling, worth exploring.

Thank you for this reply! I agree--I think seeing real people onstage in front of you are harder to ignore than a news article, video, or podcast. Many of us can ignore or turn off these sources of news, but it is much harder to look away from a person onstage sharing a very specific story. The Milton Project sounds like community based theatre making at its best, and I hope I get the opportunity to see the piece set in MA! Further support for making theatre for a community that also invites them into the process and creates ownership. Brilliant!

The definition of documentary theatre this article establishes is one that I agree with wholeheartedly. It's sad to think that theatre is so commonly considered an elitist art form when in reality it can (and should) be for everyone. Theatre should be a safe and thoughtful space for every person regardless of any factor whether it be personal, social, political, or otherwise.
Documentary theatre is extremely interesting to me specifically because it demands collaboration between disciplines, as you explained in the article. Theatre is, in itself, an art that requires collaboration between individuals of any/every background and trade, but this genre specifically and deliberately expands that in a way that not a lot of things do. To work with people outside your "field" is to learn more about the world and to open your mind, which is exactly what documentary theatre - and maybe all theatre - should do for both the people involved in its creation and its audience.
This genre is highly accessible to all walks of life insofar as it puts news on stage. This is why making new, relevant, factual documentary theatre is so important and so key right now, in today's cultural and political climate. We need to work together to bring reality in its purest form (fact) to all audiences. Documentary theatre can do that; we can do that. I truly believe that, and I seriously appreciate this article.

I wholeheartedly agree. Theatre is and should be for the people. It is a collaborative art that everyone should take part in, not just the actors/crew. The audience needs to feel apart of it as well and documentary theatre offers that opportunity.

I also love the mention of how documentary theatre expands into all areas of life. I wish that theatre goers/ theatre crew/actors, and theatre enthusiasts would understand this and that we can all benefit from this.

I also hate how a lot of people are against documentaries in general because they are "boring" ( Which is not true at all). If everyone understood that documentary theatre can incite change, entertain, teach and that they could be involved with the creation of the piece, then maybe more people would be appreciative and would enjoy it. Documentaries of all kinds are necessary for society to move forward (Learn from the past/present to create a better future?).

Let's do it. Let's work together and create something amazing through theatre. If we all join forces, we will overcome the negative connotations as well as inspire/teach/entertain!
(Apologies for my Agitprop theatre ending...)

I love your call to action! And I think that you hit the nail on the head when you say that documentary theatre is a collaborative form and experience for ALL involved--cast, crew, and audience. In my own work, the audience talkbacks (which are a must for me) transform the creators, cast, and crew just as much as the play speaks to the audience members. It's one artistic ecosystem.

The longer I work in the theatre (while working a day job as well), the more I am convinced that getting outside our own field is key to being able to respond to issues that affect us all. I love the idea of using theatre to burst the bubbles that we all live it. Thanks for taking the time to share these thoughts!

Collaboration is such a huge part of theatre, documentary theatre especially. People of all backgrounds, interests, and ideas must come together to put together a show, and documentary theatre relies on receiving stories and input from people in and outside the theatre community. Without the input from groups of people, this kind of theatre would not exist, and it wouldn't be a true reflection of the world we live in. Theatre is more accessible when it is relatable, and this is only possible when this "elitist" vision is lost and a more open piece of are is put on stage. The fact that documentary theatre reflects a real event and expands on real life events makes it as close to reality as theatre can really get.
I really like your point about theatre already being a collaborative effort of people in different fields. Being a dramaturgy student who also works in the prop shop, I am able to interact with two very different fields that bring a play together. In most cases, it is necessary for people of all fields to work outside of their comfort zones to bring a piece together when a budget doesn't allow for specialized workers. Theater offers such a wonderful opportunity to stretch one's boundaries to create a meaningful piece. In documentary theatre, a whole new field is added to the repertoire: journalism. Administering and recording interviews is a skill that every journalist is familiar with, but not necessarily every theatre artist. It is a fascinating and challenging branch of the theatre field, but it is a very rewarding experience.

Thank you for writing this article! I completely agree with everything you have said above. All discoveries begin with curiosity, and I believe we need to put the curiosity, and the adventure of learning back into our society. Today we believe we always have to be in the know, and that we have to understand everyone all the time. However, it is this forced and ultimately false understanding that is dividing our country. We are not taking the time to discover and listen, we are creating other people’s narratives for them, and then whoever has the loudest voice is being heard. It is platforms like documentary theatre that is putting personal and primary experience back in the spotlight.
I really appreciate how you stressed to low cost and high impact models of documentary theatre. As a theatre student my current goals are to create accessible theatre to all audiences post graduation. Whether it is federally funded theatre, arts education, or more challenging commercial performance. I need the arts, especially theatre to have a better economic foundation, and stop being thought of as philanthropy by most in our country. Art is just as crucial in human development as STEM and the other primary subjects. I believe documentary theatre has the accessibility and interest level to attract many audiences from different walks of life with a cheap price tag. If we start creating frequent content that documents our current society in an interesting and entertaining way we can compete with this incredible age of TV and online streaming content.
We need to keep including people in the theatre. As you said above, people’s stories are interesting; you just need to give them a chance to speak. We need to highlight these people and their stories to not only create new content, but also keep people in the theatre.

I appreciate you taking the time to respond, Mimi! "Today we believe we always have to be in the know, and that we have to understand everyone all the time. However, it is this forced and ultimately false understanding that is dividing our country. We are not taking the time to discover and listen, we are creating other people’s narratives for them, and then whoever has the loudest voice is being heard." This is such a powerful observation here--I know how tempting it can be for me personally, when I am scared or angry or uncertain, to want to hear someone say they have the answer or the solution. But I also know that we live in complicated times, and the answers are never as quick or simple as we wish them to be. Taking the time to listen, discover, and wrestle with others' ideas, as well as our own, is a long haul. Thank you for sharing this perspective!

Recently, and of course with notable exceptions, people have been reluctant to explore ideas that might conflict with their own. Your point about this is something I have also noticed, and I agree that theatre and performance/exhibitionist art in general and specifically Documentary Theatre is and can be a way by which to access those arguments. Every opinion regardless of person and content is extremely important when it comes to politics and national policy, which is of course highly relevant right now.
Giving a voice to the voiceless is something that social media does really well (to an extent) but sadly it is all too easy to only see ideas and opinions that match your own on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. It's hard to get out of your auto-personalized virtual space because of the way the internet works. Documentary Theatre, whether it be a low-cost/no-cost production in the street or otherwise, is something that is incredibly accessible to anyone and everyone. This highly accessible type of art and content is what we need to be producing in times like these: times of cultural confusion and panic.

I completely agree with everything that has been said in this article. It was difficult for me as an International College student with Hispanic decent to witness this election and inauguration without feeling uncomfortable and scared. Scared for myself, for my future, and for many other people of my ethnic group who are in the same position as me or have it worse. As you mentioned in the article, it is the lack of verification of news that really plays a big part in what my generation and other generations get exposed to. It has become harder and harder to trust the media. However, I do have hope in the awareness of this problem. More young people are seeing that social media is a bubble and it filters the outside world in front of our own eyes without us even realizing that every like, every time we open a certain article, the bubble closes even more.
I also believe that Documentary Theatre should be the new art form that will break the silence and move people into change. This is the era where art is most important. I believe that art as a form of expression will be the force that will encourage more people to seek change.
To share briefly, this afternoon I was going to go have coffee with my scene partner as a way to get to know each other before doing scene work. We walked outside out dormitory building we stumbled upon a march of people advocating for Muslim, Immigrants, and LGBTQ+ rights. Without thinking twice, we both joined the march and it was the best moment of our lives, seeing all of these passionate people fighting for what they believe in. After the march was over, everyone proceeded into a group meeting where people had the chance to share their stories. I will not forget what one of the queer advocate said to the group. “I am here because I need to be uncomfortable and I am happy that I am uncomfortable because I need to be listening to people who don’t have the kind of privileges I do and I need to continue to work with all of those who are oppressed. Because my liberation depends on your liberation and I will not be free until you are all free.” This goes side by side with what it means to interview someone. It is necessary for people to feel uncomfortable protesting in uncommon places like an Airport (knowing they were making it hard for people who really needed to hop on a plane and go somewhere) to support people who were almost banned from entering the United States.
As artists, it is necessary for us to work until feeling uncomfortable as well. To meet new people, to share spaces with people we are not familiar with, to explore unknown places, to listen to other people’s opinions we may not agree with, and so on. This is how Documentary Theatre can create work that educates, agitates, and influences others to fight for change. If the news is not out ally, then we must find the truth ourselves somehow. This is the era where art is needed the most, and it is up to the artist whether or not they want to take that step.

I love that you touch upon the fact that we are being called to feel uncomfortable! I know how hard it is as an artist and human being to feel uncomfortable, unsure, and anxious about a particular issue and the future. I think the key is to walk into this space of unfamiliar territory, as it seems like the only way to discover something new. Artists have the ability to model this for others, and I so appreciate you sharing this story about the protests!

I really appreciate you adding your personal experience in relationship to documentary theater as a whole. It really is a call to action more than any other form of theater and sometimes it is thrust upon us. Highlighting specifically on the idea of being uncomfortable and how important that is to the experience of documentary theater is imperitive. Art that truly means something and pushes the boundries will involve being uncomfortable. Being an involved theater-goer and a theater artist means not only being uncomfortble, but accepting that it will be uncomfortable. No change has ever been made by anyone who stayed inside their comfort zone.

I remember the day after the election. It was a solemn day at Emerson, especially in my Directing 1 class with Benny. We talked about it and purged our fear, our emotions, and reactions. As young lost people, we were swelled with fear, but I won’t forget what Benny said next, “You’re artists. You make art. What do you do now?” It was clear in that moment that art will save us, not only the artist but society as a whole. We need art and art.

Raising questions is pertinent to Documentary Theatre because if we had the answer to a problem, then what is the point of exploring it? Documentary theatre is meant to reach into the unknown and try to understand. Bergstrom also points out that the answer is not always the destination but rather the journey itself to attempting to find it. “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” (Bergstrom) If we don’t ask the questions, nothing can change. The world would be at a standstill with no progression. No growth would occur and no lives would be improved.

When people share their own answer in an interview, it is as Bergstrom says, Magical. Getting the different perspectives and trying to understand different people is what makes the world go round. The answers that are narrowed down and focused by different people are “our only hope to connect, co-exist, and break down the barriers that we believe divide us”.hat is the point of Documentary Theatre; to storm the barricades and break down barriers; to give different perspectives to others so that they may understand and united different side. In the end, we are all people co-existing in a world full of uncertainty. And the most influential way to understand each other is through art and self-expression.

Thanks for these thoughts! I love that you acknowledge that we are all people in a world full of uncertainty, and this leads me time and time again to believe that we as artists are not called to be "experts" but rather fellow human beings that are willing to ask the questions and tell these stories. To consider artists as existing above or separate from the world in which we live is, in my belief, a false notion. Thank you!

Thanks for the thoughts, all! I find documentary theatre to be a fascinating dance of asking questions, really hearing what people have to say in an interview, and ultimately, presenting a collection of the stories onstage. I do believe strongly in the need to enter into a project with a deep desire to learn, to seek truth, and often times, this desire is fueled by a personal connection to the topic. In order to not become too didactic (a quality that I personally do not find effective in theatre), I think it's important to go into the interviews as open as possible--otherwise, we find ourselves seeking points of views and stories that only prove our previously held beliefs.

Allow yourself to be surprised by the stories you hear, and changed by the perspectives you get the chance to become aware. I promise you, you won't be disappointed! Additionally, when you put the stories onstage, it is impossible to keep yourself out of the shape the play takes--after all, you make a statement with the stories you include, the ones you exclude, and the way you present your piece of work. When I have been an audience member at a documentary play, I love walking away not with the playwright's point of view handed outright to me, but a myriad of different ideas that, in the end, often suggest solutions and spark action.

I suppose that what I really believe is that the documentary play you put onstage--if you put your heart into making it an inclusive, curious, and honest piece-- will speak for itself and people will walk away feeling like they are many solutions/actions/ideas to think about. Cheers to you all in your creative work!

Agreed! A great gift of documentary theatre (in my opinion) is that, when the audience can sense that they aren't being "sold" any particular agenda as in politics or more overt political theatre, there's an opportunity for people to be genuinely open to different perspectives. It's not confrontational like a family dinner or a facebook thread, so it's hard to be defensive. Thanks for this article!

Not having the answers means not offering any hope. Theater should be more than a pity party, holding up a mirror to you so you can see how sad and pathetic your situation is. What the theater needs is visionaries. Trump won because he was a visionary. His vision was that America could be great again, the manufacturing jobs could be brought back, etc. Of course, this vision is all a lie, a delusion, and that is not going to happen. We know he is not really going to do anything to make that happen. But the Democrats were just telling the American people that the jobs were never coming back and it sucks to be you. Not exactly a message that anyone wants to hear!

"Not having the answers means not offering any hope..."

That's not al all what I got out of this piece. To me, it is about the need to understand reality before we can come up with good solutions. I firmly believe this, which is one of the reasons that in the past I've commented so negatively about plays or movies or TV shows that don't reflect reality (despite often being very popular and highly regarded by the establishment).

"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."

Some of the most inspirational words I've heard in a long time.

I had the same initial reaction as Robert, and I often feel that the over mystification of life by the arts is misguided when addressing social and political strategy.

Personally, I have answers, and I believe those answers come from my experience and the experience of the folks I'm working with. So I think disparaging answers is as misguided as disparaging questions.
If you have questions, ask them. If you have answers, give them, and listen to the responses.

Plays or movies or TV shows that don't reflect reality are escapist fantasies. I think there are three broad types of art; documentary art, entertainment, and visionary art. So lets say you are being tortured in a prison. Do you want a film maker to come in and document everything that is being done to you? Or do you want an entertainer to come in and take your mind off your torment? Or do you want a visionary to come in and show you how to escape? Only visionary art is transformative and offers hope for change.

Subscribe to HowlRound

Sign up for our daily, weekly, or quarterly emails so you never miss the latest theatre conversations.

Sign me up

Supporting HowlRound

We fundraise to keep all our programs free and open and to pay our contributors. Thank you to all who make our work possible!

Donate today