The Power of Verbatim Theatre
With Jen Marlowe
Nabra Nelson: Salaam Alaikum. Welcome to Kunafa and Shay, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. Kunafa and Shay discusses and analyzes contemporary and historical Middle Eastern and North African, or MENA, theatre from across the region.
Marina J. Bergenstock: I’m Marina.
Nabra: And I’m Nabra.
Marina: And we’re your hosts.
Nabra: This season, we’ll be focusing on twenty-first-century MENA theatre, highlighting contemporary MENA plays and playwrights, spotlighting international community-engaged work in the Arab world, and pondering the present and future of MENA theatre in the US. Our name, Kunafa and Shay, invites you into the discussion in the best way we know how, with complex and delicious sweets like kunafa and perfectly warm tea or, in Arabic, shay.
Marina: Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and sometimes to engage with our differences. In each country in the Arab world, you’ll find kunafa made differently. In that way, we also lean into the diversity, complexity, and robust flavors of MENA theatre. We bring our own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.
Nabra: Yalla. Grab your tea. The shay is just right.
In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about verbatim and documentary theatre, the process of creating it, and its impact on communities. We are thrilled to be joined by Jen Marlowe, the founder of Donkeysaddle Projects. But before we jump into questions for Jen, we want to give you a brief intro to what documentary theatre and verbatim theatre are, and some of the work that Donkeysaddle has done in the past.
Marina: Yes. So documentary theatre is theatre that tells a true story using materials, such as news articles, interviews, reports, letters. Verbatim theatre is a branch of documentary theatre in which a playwright or group of devisers interviews people who are connected to the subject matter at the heart of the piece. So, these interviews become threads that are used to construct the play. Verbatim theatre can differ from other forms of documentary theatre because it only uses quotes from interviewees to construct the piece of theatre. Everything is written into the script verbatim, while non-verbatim documentary theatre often blends interviews with other source material and possibly original narration as well.
Nabra: But it’s not like verbatim theatre or documentary theatre don’t have a point of view. The playwright edits and compiles the interviews. So really the way that those interviews are put together and what’s chosen to be included or not included can really highlight a certain point of view on the subject. One of the most famous verbatim pieces in the US is Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. And Marina and I are especially interested in verbatim theatre as a branch of documentary theatre, because it’s a really unique form of theatre that few people know about, we figured. And so we wanted to share some examples to highlight how documentary theatre has impacted communities and how the use of verbatim theatre can be a powerful tool in documentary theatre projects.
Marina: Yes. So we’re definitely interested in this and we wanted to use it as a jumping-off point to talk to Jen about Donkeysaddle today. One of the reasons that I’m really interested in this, too, is because it provides—We’ve been talking about representation in the past, and this is an interesting way to have people’s perspectives really brought into a piece instead of having a playwright speaking for communities; having the communities brought into the piece themselves. So, the first piece we’ll talk about is My Name Is Rachel Corrie, and this has been a very successful verbatim piece that Alan Rickman directed in London’s West End in 2005; it won some awards. It was edited by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner with excerpts from Rachel Corrie’s diary. So Rachel Corrie is a white woman who in March of 2003, was twenty-three, and she was crushed to death by an Israeli Army bulldozer in Gaza, as she was trying to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home.
So, this piece is a one-woman play, which is composed from her journals, her letters, her emails. And it creates this “portrait of a messy, articulate, Salvador Dali–loving chain-smoker”, who loves Pat Benatar and who left her home and school in Washington to work as an activist in the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s worth noting though that while the story centers Palestinian advocacy, Rachel Corrie herself is not from the Middle East. And so I intimated that before and that’s where sometimes this piece is seen as controversial, for these reasons, but it’s definitely one that’s worth starting us off with.
Nabra: Another interesting verbatim piece is called The Fear of Breathing and it’s about the Syrian revolution. On the website about Fear of Breathing, I’m just going to quote them because they really encompass their piece really nicely:
“To uncover these personal stories from the uprising (…) journalists, Paul Wood of the BBC and Ruth Charlotte Sherlock of The Daily Telegraph, together with theatre director Zoe Lafferty, travelled into Syria, covertly, circumventing the ban on journalists and restrictions on movements for all non-Syrians. Immersed in Syria’s suffocating environment of oppression and fear, they spoke to protesters facing tanks and guns, soldiers who deserted to form the Free Army, activists who dream of change, as well as citizens who love President Bashar al-Assad, and are terrified of a future without him.”
It was really interesting how they just encompass that piece. Having something about the Syrian revolution, that’s really on-the-ground, I mean… You can imagine that this is the type of theatre, honestly, I would want to see. What are people who are in that revolution saying about the regime, saying about what they want changed, and about their lives right now?. And so, they took those interviews from the ground during the revolution and created this piece called Fear of Breathing.
Marina: And I’ve actually taught that piece in class before. And something that undergrads really liked and appreciated about it is the multivocality of the piece, right? So hearing from all of these different voices, because often when we turn to the media, where we get news, we’re hearing what a reporter thinks and then we’re interpreting the news through this reporter’s point of view. And so obviously we can read different news sources, but this play is actually a way to hear a lot of different viewpoints all at once. And then, of course, knowing that this play’s edited, so looking at who edited it and why, those are important pieces of this puzzle. The next piece we’ll talk about is The Gaza Monologues. And we’re actually going to be talking to Iman Aoun, who’s the artistic director of ASHTAR Theatre in a later episode, and Iman’s theatre company, ASHTAR, is the one who helped develop this piece in Gaza.
So, since 2010 to the present, more than two thousand youth from around the globe, and more than eighty cities in forty countries, have presented these monologues that are translated and presented into eighteen languages. So, The Gaza Monologues were created in Gaza by ASHTAR. And in the actual piece, you can see the picture of the youth who created that monologue. And it’s helped people from around the world become more aware and stand in solidarity with Gaza. So this piece was actually toured—the children from Gaza were not able to necessarily tour with the piece because of the way that travel is restricted. But ASHTAR helped sort of structure the script and convert some of the action into theatrical action. So it’s based on the belief that freeing the land begins by freeing the mind. So we’re looking forward to talking to Iman later on, but that is one piece that was actually recently published in the United States, which is exciting because for a while it was not available in the US.
Nabra: I love something that ASHTAR says about this piece, because I think it captures a bit of what documentary theatre does. They say through this play, “ASHTAR changed the script, replaced the events, and converted the tragic epic to a theatre of action, a theatre built on interaction for the sake of change arising from our belief that freeing the land begins by freeing the mind.” I just love the way that that captures... Really what theatre does, it flips the script. It brings power back to the people, especially verbatim and documentary theatre, where you’re really highlighting... literally putting a spotlight on the thoughts and opinions and testimonials of any person. And so, the last piece that we’ll talk about is actually a piece that Jen and I were both a part of through Dunya Productions, which is the MENA theatre company here in Seattle that we both helped to create and establish.
It’s just getting on its feet a little bit right now. COVID put a big wrench in our big opening plans but we’re still going. And during—Right after quarantine started, we decided to do an online piece and the really the emphasis impetus behind that was to create a piece whose funds would directly benefit Palestinians who are suffering from all of the restrictions and additional issues that come up due to COVID in Palestine. And so the Palestinian members of Dunya Productions gathered testimonials from Palestine about how COVID had affected life there. Many of the stories were about how life had changed and how COVID really affected Palestine uniquely in the world, but even more impactfully for me were the stories about how life during COVID is similar to everyday life in occupied Palestine, with quarantines and curfews, lack of supplies, lack of communication, inequitable, distribution of resources. That was really illuminating to me just to hear these verbatim testimonials.
So Hannah Eady and Ed Mast compiled the testimonials into a script and all of the company members read them out loud over Zoom, including myself and Jen. And then the proceeds from the event went directly to Gaza, Jerusalem, and the West Bank to distribute packages of food and necessities to families in dire need. It was really a powerful experience that resulted from the very simple act of collecting and performing real-life stories. And that’s how simple verbatim theatre can be. And yet just in hearing those real-life stories, it really makes a huge impact. Speaking those letters out loud by itself was a really powerful performance. And it was just really a pleasure to be a part of that. And Jen, was part of that production, but she also has just a long history with documentary and verbatim theatre and the way that it can support and highlight communities.
Marina: All right. So Jen Marlowe is an author and documentary filmmaker, and playwright, and human rights/social justice activist. She’s the founder of Donkeysaddle Projects, which creates pieces within the realms of film, theatre, and creative non-fiction to amplify stories of resistance and struggles for equality and liberation. Jen’s most recent project is the film version of her play, There is a Field, addressing the killing of seventeen-year-old Palestinian citizen of Israel by Israeli police and connecting the issues of state violence, structural injustice, and supremacy in Israel and the United States.
Nabra: And actually, through my capacity as director of arts engagement at Seattle Rep and our joint capacity as members of Dunya Productions, we’re putting on a screening of There is a Field in May with Northwest Film Forum here in Seattle, which will include a local panel of community activists and folks with experiences with state-sanctioned violence. So I’m really excited for that partnership with Donkeysaddle, which intersects with so much of the related work we’re doing in different capacities. It’s like each of us have two hats on every time we’re talking about it. Anyways, it’s really, really great to have you here, Jen, thank you for joining us.
Jen Marlowe: Yes. Thank you. It’s so great to be here and to be having this conversation with both of you. Really honored to be in this space with you.
Nabra: Thank you. We’re honored to have you., I’m honored to be a part of so many projects with you as well, honestly, personally as an artist. And so we’re talking today about documentary and verbatim theatre. And so we wanted to know why, first of all, that you use documentary theatre in so many of your projects with Donkeysaddle.
Jen: For me, I guess the theatre piece comes second, and it’s the documentary piece that to me is more central. In all of the work that I do, I view myself as a partner where I’m partnering with people who have been most impacted by oppression, most impacted by injustice, and who are choosing to resist that, with having their stories have an impact. And so I see—What I can offer for folks who are interested in this, is partnership in helping them shape their stories and helping amplify their voices. And so to me, the documentary part that is the staying very true and very authentic to people sharing their own experiences in their own words, and having agency not only in the story that was told, but also in how it is told in the language that is used, in the words that are used.
That is a core part of all of the work that I do. And it comes through whether I’m partnering with someone to write a book, which is their story and their memoir—and I’ve written a few books along those lines—or if it’s a documentary film, or, of course, then you’re using the raw footage of people’s real words, or whether it’s a play, or a theatre project… That idea of wanting to elevate people’s own words. And in order for those to allow those words to have a wider impact and to allow those stories to have a wider impact is at the heart of everything I do.
Nabra: Makes a lot of sense. I love that.
Marina: I mean, we’ve talked about representation and sometimes with representation of what’s missing is agency. And giving agency to people. And so I love that thread that you’re really bringing out there. Can you talk about your process with the pieces that you create in Donkeysaddle? They’re so multilayered from the interviews to the performance, to the documentary. What is involved in making them happen? And if you want to use, maybe, There is a Field as an example, however you want to talk about that.
Jen: Sure. Yeah, because there is no one process, so when you ask what is our process at Donkeysaddle Projects… It is so variant because the process really follows the needs of the project and the needs of the story. And most importantly, the needs of the people whose story it is. And so with There is a Field, and that process has been about 20 twenty-year process right now and it’s—
Jen: Yeah, because it started... The play, and now the film, centers on the murder of a seventeen-year-old Palestinian young man who was murdered by Israeli police. And the process started by me having this thought of writing a play that was about Asel. And I knew Asel, he had been my camper. So when he was murdered, it was a very personal trauma. And my first thought was wanting to write a play. And this was before Donkeysaddle Projects existed. This was in a previous version of my life. I had an instinct that I knew that it needed to be a documentary-style play, even though I’m not sure that I even knew what documentary theatre was or thought that was a genre at that time. But that just instinctively felt really clear to me. And I reached out to Asel’s older sister Nardin to ask if she would want to see that happen. And, if so, would she want to partner with me in that? And we began a series of interviews.
So we began really exactly this time twenty years ago, it was January or February 2001, just a few months after Asel’s murder, that we sat down to do the first interview in what later turned out to be a fifteen-year process of interviews. The bulk of them being in the first eight years, I would say. But then after that, as I continued to work on the play I would have, continued to have, follow-up conversations with Nardin. And so that really became the core and the heart of the play was this fifteen-year process of interviewing Nardin. But also that was rounded out with interviews with Asel’s other family members and court transcripts from the commission of inquiry that the Israeli government had put together, which ultimately turned out to be a whitewash and Asel’s only writings that he left behind.
And writings and emails from different friends of Asel’s. And so all of those got layered together to become the backbone of the play. But then, of course, the play is one element of the film because the film then is not only the performance of the play as performed by activists in the Movement for Black Lives, but then it’s also their reflections on ways in which they connect to the material and parallels that they see when it comes to vis-a-vis state violence, the impunity with which state violence often occurs, the structural systemic racism that undergirds these systems and that upholds these systems. So connections from their own experiences are also then a part of the film. So then the process was interviewing all of the performer participants during the process of them preparing for the performance.
And then trying to think through how to edit all of that together. The only thing I could say that is probably consistent about my process, that’s true with, There is a Field, and it is also true when I’m thinking about other processes and other projects, ias I need to immerse myself fully in the material. And it’s a very long process. And so I transcribe all of the footage myself because there are some... And it takes hours and hours and hours and hours. But for me, there’s something about being immersed in the transcribing that puts me inside someone’s head in a way that I don’t think would be the same as if I got someone to transcribe it for me or used a transcribing software, and then just went back and read it. There’s an intimacy in the process for me that I think I need to be able to transform it into whatever, whether we’re talking about a play or a book or a film, there’s something about immersing myself in that person’s words and in their experience as they tell it. That to me… it’s a fundamental part of my process when I’m doing this work.
Nabra: Wow. And so drawing on some other examples, you’ve mentioned that some of these processes have turned into books, in this case there’s a play and a film, so it sounds like it all starts from something of interest that comes to you or to a company member and that investigation and the conversations with the key folks involved with that. And then taking whatever their, I guess, wanting or needing to do with those words and creating that documentary piece, whether that’s a book or a play or a film or whatever from that process. Is that a good encapsulation of that? And what are other examples that have maybe looked completely different from There is a Field?
Jen: Yeah, that’s a great way to summarize and encapsulate it. And one of the things that I feel is... I like to say, when I talk about Donkeysaddle Projects or our work, which might partly just be an excuse for us not having those things that organizations have of like, here’s our five-year plan or things like that, we don’t have those. And partly it’s because I feel like we try to follow the work, which is also means following the communities and the lead of the communities that the work is centering. And so, we don’t always know where that’s going take us, and so we don’t plan, we do—It's not that we don’t have plans at all, but we want to be able to have the ability to really follow the work and follow the impact of communities whose stories are being told, where it needs to go.
And one example of that, that your question made me think of, actually grew out of There is a Field. So, there is one there was one rendition of, There is a Field where it was being performed by DC-based organizers and activists. And it was a series of readings that were done in people’s homes, in their living rooms, in church basements and restaurants. And each of those readings was a fundraiser for the DMV's Black Mama Bail Out Initiative. And so, through these readings of There is a Field, we ended up being able to raise enough money to bail out six people as part of the DC area’s Black Mama Bail Out Initiative. And the whole idea of using the play in this way and connecting it to the Black Mama Bail Out Fund was the inspiration of Je Nae’ Taylor, now she’s the cultural organizer at the Highlander Center and as a very close collaborator and partner.
And so, we were partnering with Je Nae’ in doing that. And ultimately we ended up doing a reading of the play at the Kennedy Center as part of the new plays festival that they host and where the play was read by three formerly incarcerated women, two of whom had been bailed out from these earlier readings of the play that were connected to the Black Mama Bail Out Fund. So it was a really concrete example of how theatre and how storytelling could be mobilized for very direct activism. And people’s freedom, people’s ability to get out of jail and be reunited with their families, was a direct outgrowth of these readings of the play. One of the women who was a part of these readings, who also performed as the part of Nardin at the Kennedy Center, was Alejandra Pablos, who was fighting her own deportation order. Alejandra is an activist and an organizer who spent two-and-a-half years in ICE detention and was ordered by a judge to be deported, although she was born in Mexico, but she spent all of her life since being an infant here in the United States.
And so, she’s in the process of resisting and fighting that deportation order. After the experience with There is a Field... And Ale is a natural storyteller and uses storytelling in her activism. She was inspired by how theatre... She'd never been involved in a theatrical process before. So seeing how theatre could be mobilized concretely in that way felt really exciting to her. So Alei approached me to see if DSP might partner with her to tell her story through documentary theatre. So we’re now in the process where it’s a four-person, fully collaborative team, Ale, myself, my colleague Brittany King, and Noelle Ghoussaini. The four of us are in a collaborative process together working with Alei for her story to be told. And it will be some combination of a documentary play and an immersive theatre experience where the audience will be engaged in ways beyond—They will be witnessing Ale’s story, but engaged beyond being a witness as well, and we’re thinking through how we can really connect the storytelling to the community, mobilizing into the activism in ways that will be, we hope, fresh, and exciting, and inspiring, and will mobilize and activate.
Nabra: Well, that’s a really important part of the process that you’ve brought up. That once the piece is done, the theatre piece, orf the film, or whatever it is, you’re very intentional about how that’s shared even in this process, partnering with you to create the screening of There is a Field. I went to the previous screening you did via Zoom. And there was a panel afterwards of... A very well-curated panel. And that conversation, of course, is incredibly integral to the experience of watching the film. And we’re working on a panel for this local screening of local activists. And something you said before is that this panel really needs to be available for anyone who is watching this film. Like they should really watch the film and watch the panel right afterwards. And I think that’s a really important point that you’re bringing up, the way that you’re actually bringing those pieces into the community, how you’re advocating for it, where those funds are going. And who’s a part of that conversation in a way that’s really specific to each community it’s in conversation with. I mean, that’s a whole additional part of this extremely long process that is ongoing, never stops.
Jen: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s ongoing, and it evolves, and it changes, and who is most important to invite into those conversations, what those conversations need to focus on. And then I think what you brought up was really important: Who also ultimately then benefits from these conversations? So like the fundraising, where did the funds go after screening? And how do we make sure that all aspects of the work are centering and benefiting the communities who are most impacted, whose stories are being told?
Jen: And I would never try to say that we always do it perfectly or that we ever do it perfectly, but we try at least to always be asking those questions and we try to be mindful about taking our lead from and centering the folks who are most impacted.
Marina: Yeah. So you spoke to a class that I was in at Stanford and something really striking that you said about your work, because you are working with people who are really affected by major issues— But you said something that I had never heard anyone else say, and you said this about a book project that you’d been working on with someone whose sibling had been incarcerated. But you said that if someone didn’t want to work on a piece any longer, no matter how much time had been invested, you would stop working on the piece. That, effectively, that you were not going to continue on that project and that person’s input was so important. And that’s something that was so striking to me because you are so actively involved in communities, you are working in ways with communities that a lot of theatre makers shy away from, because it can feel messy in a lot of ways, because you’re involving so many different people.
But can you talk more about how you involve community, how you’re working... I mean, I’ve worked on devised processes, never a process quite like yours, but at a certain point, a director has usually said and sometimes I’ve been that director that says, “Okay. Well, someone has to have ultimate veto power.” And where does that lie in a project like yours, where there are so many people involved and you’re really involved with community.
Jen: So again, I don’t have any one answer. There’s not a, like, “Here's how I do it,” because every project grows from slightly different sources and has a different direction. But probably the simplest answer about the veto power is in my mind. The veto power is the person whose story it is. That’s where the veto power lies. So, at any point—, and the book you were talking about that I referenced in your class, Marina, it’s the, I Am Troy Davis, where I partnered with Troy and with his sister Martina in telling their story, chiefly it was Martina’s story. And then Troy was ultimately executed. He was an innocent man on Georgia's death row, and then Martina died two months later. And I hadn’t done any of the writing that I had done years at that point of interviewing and very deep work with Martina and with Trory and with the family, but the actual writing hadn’t happened yet.
And when Martina died, we were just really diving into the writing. And essentially there was moments where it wasn’t clear that if the rest of their family wanted that project to go on and that I had to be okay with that. And they did in the end, and the book was published and I’m still like… You asked, how long I stay in touch with folks. Troy was executed almost ten years ago and I’m very, very close to his entire family, still. His niece and nephew, I call my niece and nephew. Asel was murdered twenty years ago, his sister remains one of my closest friends, as do both of his sisters and his brother. Asel’s younger brother is a co-producer on the film, but at the point when I was writing the draft of the book, it wasn’t clear to me whether the family wanted that to happen or the timeline in which they wanted that to happen.
And I remember just saying, “Listen, my responsibility to Troy and Martina, what I promised them was that I would make sure their book got written.” But what happens to the book is up to Troy’s family. Troy is gone and Martina is gone, but there are other sisters and brothers that are still alive, and Martina’s son De’Juan, who was a teenager, seventeen, at the time is alive. And so, I need to honor my commitment to Troy and Martina by writing at least that first draft. And then what happens to it is, they need to decide that. I mean, to me that feels really clear that if the person whose story it is, doesn’t feel like it’s either safe for them, or that it’s not what they wanton for whatever reason, that's their choice. And I’ve never been in a situation where someone has said to me, like, where the decision has been that they’ve asked me to pull the plug, and I’m sure I’d have all kinds of feelings about that if it happened, especially if I invested a ton of time, and labor, and emotional investment, and money, and it would be very painful. It’d be very difficult.
I’m sure I would have many sleepless nights and great axed angst over that. And in the end, that’s not as important as the person whose story it is, having agency in what happens with the story.
Nabra: Yeah, definitely. You’ve talked a bit about how the process really impacts you and the main person whose story you’re telling, as well as some of the direct action that’s resulted out of these pieces, some of these pieces you’ve worked on. But there are just so many people’s voices involved in the creation of a documentary piece. I mean, there’s the director— who I’m guessing is a lot of times is you— of have the piece itself, if it’s a film or a theatre piece, editors, the actors who are embodying these real people and who also bring themselves into the portrayals of these interviews... How do you see this process affecting the other folks involved in the process? And do you think that the process of creating a documentary piece is most impactful for a certain group of people involved in the process? Or do you maybe focus on the impact on one of those segments of the people who are participating in the piece and the process?
Jen: I feel like I’m answering every question starting the same way by saying: it depends on the project.
Nabra: Of course.
Jen: There is a Field grew out of a process where we had these community-based workshops working with activists and organizers in the Movement for Black Lives, where they were both rehearsing and then performing a staged reading. And of There is a Field as well as a whole political education component, which was very much about them not only studying about and learning deeper understanding about Palestine, but also then exploring what do these connections look like and exploring the questions that if these injustices and these oppressions are connected, then how might resistance to these oppressions also be connected? And then how might these movements for liberation be strengthened by being in relationship with each other?
So, the workshops were guided by those three questions. And then, at the end, the culmination was the participants performing a staged reading of the play to their larger community, to their families, their friends, their colleagues, and then leading their community in a truncated version of a similar discussion, and then they were facilitating and leading that conversation. And so I like to think about that. And then that’s what culminated then into the documentary film, then it captures a small piece of what had been an outgrowth of that process. So to me, I like to think about different circles of impact or different layers of impact. So there was the participants who the deepest impact was on them because they were immersed in the experience. They were the ones taking on the roles. They were the ones who spend the week engaged in exploring and investigating those questions.
And then the next level were the audience members. The people who were coming and witnessing and then being led by the participants in those conversations. And then I think now that there’s a film version, that widens the circles even further. I like to think about it as circles of impact, and every project has different kinds of circles, and as partnering with different communities. Another project that in some ways was inspired by the work we did around There is a Field is work that’s happening now around I Am Troy Davis. So that was the book I mentioned before that I wrote with Troy, who was executed in Georgia, ultimately. And I wrote it with his sister Martina. And so a screenplay had gotten adapted from the book. And so, in December 2019 as a theatrical protest to the resumption of the federal death penalty, because it was… The Trump administration had announced that they were going to resume federal executions for the first time in seventeen years.
So, we ended up staging a reading. We readapted the screenplay so that it would work theatrically, and we staged a reading of it where their performers were all people who were directly impacted by state violence, and racial violence, and the criminal justice system. So the person who performed as for the role of Martina, for Troy’s sister, was Airickca Gordon-Taylor, who’s the cousin of Emmett Till. And the person who performed as Troy was Oscar Grant’s uncle. Oscar Grant was murdered by the Bay Area Rapid Transit Police. I believe it was on New Year's Day, 2009, if I’m remembering the date correctly. So his uncle Cephus Johnson performed as Troy. And there was three death row exonerees who were part of the performance and two women who currently have brothers who are innocent on death row: one, Billie Allen, is on federal death row, and Louis Castro Perez on Texas's death row. The sister of Yusef Salaam performed as Troy's younger sister., Yusef is one of the Exonerated Five in the Central Park jogger case.
So, it was all folks performing for whom they had their own very, very deep experience with the injustices of the criminal punishment system and of the death penalty, and state violence and racial violence, and the impact of being part of that, the experience for a lot of these folks—most of whom are organizers and activists—but this was a new way of activism for them. This was a new way of opening up their own stories, as well as telling Troy’s story. And we ended up filming the entire process and filming all of the different rehearsals and conversations and interviews with many of the participant performers. And so now we’re in the early stages of creating a documentary film from that. So the circles of impact—the participants, the people who were involved in that collective, were deeply impacted by the week-long experience we all had together. But then also there was 150 audience members at the Rattlestick Theater, where we performed the live reading. And it ended up being a three-hour event. It was supposed to be an hour and a half, you know how those things go, but it was a transformative experience.
I think for everyone who was in that room, there was something vitally important that we were all witness to, watching that performance. And hopefully some of that was captured in a way that will allow another circle of impact with an audience.
Marina: I love that idea of the circles of impact. When did you start deciding to create films about these theatrical pieces? Because I love that they live on, they do have an additional impact beyond the piece itself. When did that start in your process?
Jen: Well, I mean, I had been making documentary films for years, so that had started in 2004. The first thought about creating the film of this theatrical process really, really grew from There is a Field. We'd been holding these series of residencies—we called them residencies—these workshops, with activists and organizers in the Movement for Black Lives and realizing that the impact was very deep. It was also limited in scope in terms of—with theatre typically it’s only the people who were in the room that benefit from that impact. So, the participants themselves—so we had between ten to twelve folks who were under each of those workshops— were undergoing a very deep process, and then maybe an average of fifty audience members for each of the culminating performances that were then the next circle of impact.
And that felt meaningful. I don’t measure value by how the number of people who were impacted. To me, that’s not the only, or even the most important, measurement, but it is real. Being able to reach—To be able to reach more people is a real thing. And so with film, you can do that in a way that theatre doesn’t. But for me, it was very important that the film wasn’t just like, “Oh, let’s make a film of the story,” but that the film was about capturing what is so... There’s something transformative about theatre that I think is different from any other art form. And it has to do with people sharing an experience together live. And so how can we utilize the capture, or the power, of that in a medium that lives on beyond that moment? So that, at first, I was started to ask myself that thinking about the work we were doing with There is a Field, and then that’s influenced what hopefully will also be a powerful film for the I Am Troy Davis project.
Nabra: And then how do you kind of measure value, I guess, what is your core for that? And you’ve talked about some of the ways in which these pieces have led to direct action, is there other change that has happened, that you know has directly resulted from these pieces? And what do you hold as the reason you do this and what you want people to walk away with?
Jen: That’s such a good question. And I think it’s one of those things you always need to show on grant applications to be able to show measurable impact. And, as we all know, as theatre makers and as storytellers, some of the most profound impacts are what can’t be measured.
Nabra: Yeah. I ask it in the artisty way, what is in your heart? What is the value measure, I guess, that you are looking for whether that can be written down on a grant or not?
Jen: When people are touched and moved enough by the work that they want to actually be a part of creating the world that we need to see, and that can look in so many different ways. And if I can share a couple just specific concrete examples… I was mentioning that with the I Am Troy Davis performance that we did, that the sister of Billie Allen, who’s an innocent man on federal death row, was one of the performers. And Billie was facing the very real possibility of an execution date in these last months as the Trump administration went on this, what can only be determined as a killing spree, executed, in the final months of his administration, executed thirteen prisoners on federal death row. And Billie was out of court dates. Billie’s name at any moment could have been called and he could have been on the list of people who were supposed to be executed.
In the end, he was not, but all his closest friends were executed. And there is a group of us that formed a campaign team to work on supporting Billie and supporting his evidence of innocence. And that campaign team was a direct outgrowth of the I Am Troy Davis project. Most of us who are part of that campaign came to Billie’s case through the work that the Donkeysaddle Projects has been doing. And so that is just one example of people motivated to act. Their motivation comes from themselves, but their knowledge about Billie’s case, their connection to be able to be a part of this group, comes from that.
We talked about how Asel’s story... I think Asel would have been thrilled to know that the telling of his story, that his words, directly led to six mothers being reunited with their children as a direct challenge to the carceral state. I co-produced and directed a series called Remembering the Gaza War, which was five short documentaries that were five different stories from the 2015 Gaza War. And there was two people who watched one of the segments, which was about a kindergarten that had gotten destroyed during the war, and were so moved by the teacher, if it was profiled in the story, and the footage of those kids who were building towers from the rubble of what used to be their kindergarten, they were playing in the rubble and building towers as if the rubble was building blocks.
And hearing the teacher speak about her commitment to her students, two people stepped up and offered the money that was needed to rebuild the kindergarten. And it’s not like we hadn’t launched the series with a direct fundraising appeal or a direct fundraising element, but the fact that people were moved enough by that work to want to do what they could in a really really and concrete way... And then there’s so many other moments that maybe I don’t even know about that the work touched somebody to want to be... I hate phrases like “make a difference” and things like that, but to want to be a part of building the world that we need so desperately, and there’s so many ways of factor look that that can look.
Nabra: And we’ve talked about, in earlier episodes, about all the unknown ways that art and theatre is creating that positive change, like exactly what you said, that it’s incredible, that you can tie some of these direct actions to the pieces that you’ve created. But I mean, there are countless other examples certainly that you don’t know about that have happened due to these art pieces. And that’s an integral part of why art like this—? I think, especially honestly, documentary theatre is so impactful because it really does inspire folks to direct action and it gives them, also, tools to make that change in their own communities, in their own lives, families, in their circles. And those incremental changes are what actually change our world.
Jen: Yeah. Oh, I totally agree. And I’ve always struggled with wanting to make sure that the work is connected to opportunities to meaningfully engage, but also not have it be about what I call “spoonfed activism,” because I feel like that that doesn’t offer deeper engagement that offers a way out. So when it’s like, “Oh, now that you’ve seen this play, here’s the petition to sign, or here’s the postcard to put a stamp on and....” It offers folks an opportunity to be absolved from having to ask the deeper, harder questions about what true systemic change looks like. And questions about how are we all implicated in systems of oppression that maybe benefit some of us, like as a white person, as a Jewish person, I benefit from, or I’m entitled to claim the benefits from a lot of these systems of oppression that I’m committed to dismantling. But if I’m offered an opportunity to for just sort of “clicktivism,” as we call it now, to activism, there's all these names that we can call it.… But those things can absolve us from asking ourselves the harder questions and being engaged in deeper levels.
So that’s always something I struggle with. How do you create opportunities for that engagement, but not create opportunities where the engagement is actually taking people off the hook?
Nabra: That’s such a good point. Yes. You leave them with that challenge, but not with necessarily all the solutions for that challenge. I love them.
Jen: Hopefully, I do. Always imperfectly, but hopefully-- it points in that direction.
Nabra: Absolutely. So I guess to leave us with, you’ve talked about some of the many projects you’re working on right now. But what is your focus right now and what do you want folks to keep their eye out for that’s coming up from you and from Donkeysaddle?
Jen: There’s so many things.
Nabra: Always so many thing.
Jen Marlowe: Too many things. So we have a podcast that my colleague, Brittany King leads and it’s called The Artivists’ Room. Season two will be dropping in March and the podcast… people who are listening to this are obviously podcast enjoyers. So I encourage folks to check out The Artivists’ Room— where you can find it, all the places that podcasts are available. And it’s conversations similar to this one with artists who work in all different formats and all different forms, but who see themselves and who sees their artwork as part of movements for justice and part of movements for liberation. Season one had some really beautiful, and inspiring, and challenging conversations. And I know season two is going to go even deeper in those directions.
The documentary film that I’ve been mentioning based on the I Am Troy Davis will hopefully be coming out well in September. We’re continuing to work with Alejandra Pablos on her story, in a documentary immersive-theatre style. And so keeping eyes out for that. We are actually launching a film series starting this month called the Freedom Film Series, where we’ll be offering just our wider communities a different opportunity to watch them and talk about a film on a monthly basis. So that is another thing to look out for. Many other things as well. Those are the things that popped into my head upon—
Nabra: Just follow Donkeysaddle on all the things. There’s always new exciting, and inspiring work that’s happening. It’s really been a pleasure and an honor to talk to you today, Jen, thank you so much for joining us.
Marina: Yes, we’re so grateful.
Jen: It is such an honor to get to have this conversation with both of you and I can’t wait to follow your podcast and all of the work that you do in the world.
Nabra: Thank you.
Jen: Can’t wait to find other ways other excuses to partner together.
Nabra: Yes. Yeah. By the end of this, we’re going to have four hats on, in every meeting we’re in. It’s going to be like five different projects happening. It’s great. That’s the dream.
Jen: I’ll share hats with you anytime.
Nabra: Thank you, me too.
Marina: Thank you so much for having tea with us. This has been another episode of Kunafa and Shay. We’re your hosts, Marina and Nabra. This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons Podcasts and subscribe to receive new episodes.
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Nabra: We hope you tune in next time. Thanks for joining us on Kunafa and Shay. Yalla, bye.
Marina: Yalla, bye