Over the last few decades, documentary theatre has experienced a boom in popularity with the commercial and critical success of works such as Anna Deveare Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles (1994), Tectonic Theatre’s The Laramie Project (2001) and docudramas by David Hare such as Stuff Happens (2004) and The Permanent Way (2005). Recent works span everything from natural disaster survival stories, to the staging of dramatized versions of inquests to well as the examination of family violence in New Zealand in Hilary Halba’s and Stuart Young’s Hush (2009 – present). Whether this documentary boom will follow the cycle of its economic counterpart and result in a bust can only be seen with the benefit of time. Rather, this paper focuses on the nature of representation in documentary theatre, in particular its relationship to the real. It is argued that the complexities involved in, and approaches to, representing the real in performance, place documentary theatre along a series of spectra. Documentary theatre does echo economic patterns in that at least two polarised extremes of the form would seem to exist. As the terminology of a spectrum implies though, these opposing strategies exist more as a range of shifting, uncertain attempts to reconcile competing tensions, rather than as a sinusoidally oscillating pair of opposites. Attempts to avoid manipulating and aestheticizing the source material can result in strangely muted presentations that strip the drama from theatrical representation, placing it at one end of this spectrum. Other attempts to creatively shape and reconfigure testimony and context, can result in a heightened aestheticization and sensationalism. This theoretically pushes the performances to a “boom” out of tune or out of synchronicity with the source material and to the other end of a perceived fiction-reality spectrum. This paper will examine some of the practices and ideas that inform the choices practitioners make in representing the “real” in performance and examine the aesthetic and ethical impact these choices can have on the resulting performances.
How can one distance oneself from the reality one sees with one’s own eyes? By turning it into theater (Taylor 1990, 172).
The period of the 1990s to the present may be seen as a boom time for documentary theatre. The success and appeal of works such as Tectonic Theatre project’s The Laramie Project (2001), Anna Deveare Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles (1994), docudramas by David Hare such as Stuff Happens(2004) and The Permanent Way (2005), and other more recent works, spanning everything from refugee and survival stories to tribunal re-enactments, signal a revival and redevelopment of the form. The boom in documentary theatre has also facilitated a proliferation of capital, cultural, political, personal and public exchanges. Whether this heightened desire for practitioner and public investment in documentary theatre will collapse, is yet to be played out. A bust, or more likely, a change in trends, will be contingent upon numerous factors, not the least of which is the public’s ongoing desire, or not, to see “reality” on stage. The phenomenon that is more readily accessible for analysis is the boom and bust nature of the form’s relationship to “reality”, performance aesthetics and audience engagement. Here it will be argued that instead of following the cycle of “boom and bust”, as demonstrated in economic models, documentary theatre is more accurately seen as falling along a series of complex spectra. Nevertheless, as in models of economic growth and collapse, two main, nominally opposed or extreme responses to the ethical and aesthetic dilemmas presented by the form exist. In approaching the “real”, documentary theatre traverses a number of extremes. At one end of the spectrum are hyper-aestheticized productions that exploit and manipulate source material in the interests of spectacle, aesthetic appeal and audience engagement. At the other, are highly “ethical” productions where practitioners inadvertently drain the drama from theatrical representation in attempting to preserve a perceived “truth”.
The tendency to sit at extreme ends in this broad spectrum is dependent largely on the nature and treatment of the subject matter or source material that is being documented in performance. Where reality-television requires significant mediation to elicit drama and conflict from mundane situations, documentary theatre, although also subject to mediation, often focuses on past traumatic events and experiences; detailing the plight of victims of natural disasters and domestic and state violence and abuse. The connection to the “real” is usually foregrounded. Carol Martin articulates documentary theatre as:
created from a specific body of archived material: interviews, documents, hearings, records, video, film, photographs, etc. Most contemporary documentary theatre makes the claim that everything presented is part of the archive. But equally important is the fact that not everything in the archive is part of the documentary (2006, 9).
In this instance, omissions, editing and presentation become a key part of the mediation process and as Martin acknowledges, is where the “creative work is done”. Documentary theatre depicting trauma is frequently political, seeking to elicit change or understanding, while at the same time, attempting to evoke or represent the experience of the victim/survivor on stage. The nature and sensitivity of the source material raises a number of difficult ethical and representational issues that will be touched on later in this analysis. While, the focus of documentary theatre extends beyond the “traumatic real” (Little 2010), the recent prevalence of this type of subject matter in documentary theatre makes it an apt focus and starting point for this discussion. In dealing with “real” trauma theatre also enters precarious territory. This intersection calls forth a number of tasks involving seemingly irresolvable conundrums. These include the notion of representing what is often considered “unrepresentable” and reconciling aesthetic distance with stirring an audience to action, empathy, understanding or engagement. A couple of productions will serve as subjects for discussion: David Hare’s The Permanent Way (2005) about the circumstances and trauma surrounding a number of British rail disasters and Hush (2009 – present) created by Hilary Halba and Stuart Young, a verbatim piece examining family violence in New Zealand. Discussion will focus primarily on the philosophical and aesthetic approaches to the source material, and how this places the performances on a perceived spectrum between fiction and reality. The degree to which self-imposed ethical restrictions may affect the production and reception of the performance is also discussed.
Filmmaker and theorist T. Minh-ha Trinh coined the term “aesthetic of objectivity” to describe “the development of comprehensive technologies of truth capable of promoting what is right and what is wrong in the world, and by extension, what is ‘honest’ and what is ‘manipulative’ in documentary” (1991, 33). For Trinh this is exemplified in “an extensive and relentless pursuit of naturalism across all the elements of cinematic technology”. She details how various elements of the filmmaking process are perceived as more or less suitable to the task of documenting the “truth”. For example, “the close-up is condemned for its partiality, while the wide angle is claimed to be more objective because it includes more in the frame, hence it can mirror more faithfully the event-in-context” (Trinh 1991, 34). A similar “aesthetic of objectivity” informs a great deal of documentary theatre. This is especially seen in those approaches that purport to “truth claims” such as the extreme form of verbatim theatre pioneered by Alecky Blythe’s Recorded Delivery company, that in turn influenced the makers of Hush. Such “truth claims” are suspect. Ultimately Trinh argues that the idea of objectivity and a value-free documentation is a construction and advocates for a more reflexive dialogic approach. Film-maker Stella Bruzzi however, argues that documentary film is a doomed enterprise:
Because the ideal of the pure documentary uncontaminated by the subjective vagaries of representation is forever upheld, all non-fiction film is thus deemed to be unable to live up to its intention, so documentary becomes what you do when you have failed (Reinelt 2009, 9).
Alternatively, Reinelt argues that statements relating to the contamination or otherwise of documentary theatre have “needlessly obfuscated the recognition that an examination of reality and a dramatization of its results is in touch with the real but not a copy of it” (2009, 8). This view validates documentary while relieving it of the responsibility, and impossibility, of literal replication. However, there remains a strong drive amongst some documentary theatre practitioners, and in many cases it is an ethical one, to represent testimony and events according to increasingly strict, self-imposed standards of exactitude. Practitioners working within this severe and often aesthetically austere manner claim they are producing a more “truthful” representation. Taken to extremes, this restrictive drive can work to deny the practitioner access to those tools and elements in theatre that render it “dramatic”, or put another way, that make a performance engaging, transformative and aesthetically pleasing or compelling. Within a sub-branch of documentary known as Verbatim Theatre, it is possible to chart the prevalence or adherence to this restrictive drive and the nature of its “booming” or all-encompassing impact on the theatre art form in performance, along a spectrum.
Verbatim theatre is an umbrella term for a wide variety of documentary forms that share a technique related specifically to the “verbatim” nature of:
the origins of the text spoken in the play. The words of real people are recorded or transcribed by a dramatist during an interview or research process, or are appropriated from existing records such as the transcripts of an official enquiry. They are then edited, arranged or recontextualised to form a dramatic presentation, in which actors take on the characters of the real individuals whose words are being used (Hammond & Steward 2008, 9).
The extent to which, and ways in which, the verbatim material is manipulated and re-presented on stage, sit along a number of ethically and aesthetically disputed spectra. David Hare, Max Stafford-Clark, William Gaskill and David Aukin founded Joint Stock, a British theatre company whose members have been responsible for a number of well-known productions utilising verbatim techniques starting in 1976 with Yesterday’s News. Hare, in particular has been accused of failing to acknowledge the “dual and thus ambiguous status as both ‘document’ and ‘play’ of his own and other documentary theatre works” (Bottoms 2006, 57). However, Stafford-Clark as director, and Hare as writer, admit readily to shaping verbatim material, to, as Stafford-Clark puts it, “find the story within the story” (Hammond 2008, 58). Hare’s verbatim play, The Permanent Way (2005), directed by Stafford-Clark, details the events, circumstances and experience of grief surrounding a series of British rail accidents in the 1990s. In discussing the process of writing it, Hare explains the need to “organise” the verbatim material in order:
to lead the audience in a certain way, through the material. And you have to have a metaphor. If the documentary play doesn’t have a metaphor, just as if a purely imagined play doesn’t have a metaphor or doesn’t have a metaphorical element then it’s incredibly boring. It’s a total misunderstanding of documentary theatre to think that it’s all about just presenting a load of facts on stage (Hammond 2008, 59).
Thus for Hare, the production of a verbatim play must involve certain creative impositions and re-orderings by the playwright for it to work as a coherent and engaging piece of theatre. Director, Stafford-Clark agrees that such works necessarily involve a re-contextualising process (Hammond 2008, 73). In an interview with Hare and Stafford-Clark, Hammond suggests that “rather than being any one thing, it inhabits a spectrum—a spectrum between reality and fiction?” to which Hare responds “Exactly” (Hammond 2008, 74). This willingness to acknowledge the spectrum and to aesthetically intervene in and shape the material is demonstrated in Hare’s approach to the research. In his own analysis, Derek Paget describes The Permanent Way as “quasi-verbatim” for a number of reasons including the fact that interviews were not recorded. Rather, the actors, who also served as interviewers for the original production, worked to distil elements of the interviews into presentations that they showed in the rehearsal room: “Following these ‘verbatim workshops’ of character, Hare might include them (that is to say, actor and real-life model) in his eventual script” (Paget 2009, 230). Hare apparently referred to the actors as “hunter gatherers” (Merlin in Paget 2009, 230), rather than researchers:
This self-consciously aggressive metaphor was used, it seems to me, to encourage them to enter the story-space of people interviewed with the purpose of expropriating it—thus by-passing any ethical dilemmas the company might feel about subsequent exploitation of traumatic stories of loss and suffering (Paget 2009, 230).
Whether Paget’s charge is entirely fair is debatable. However, the collection and indeed, as it would seem, the generation of source material for The Permanent Way did involve significant creative mediation. The popularity of this and other of Hare’s verbatim pieces, suggest that he and his collaborators have discovered a viable commercial and aesthetic formula for making documentary theatre. However, understandably, for some an ethical unease remains around his work. Other practitioners have sought other approaches in the quest for a documentary theatre that remains “true” to the experiences of those it represents. In many instances, such attempts seem to involve a process of theatrical subtraction or subversion.
In an attempt at exactitude that aims to deny actors the ability to embellish testimony with acting, Alecky Blythe of the British Recorded Delivery Company advocates a practice which utilises actual recorded testimony onstage (Hammond & Steward 2008, 81). The actors wear headphones throughout the performance where they listen to the digital recording of the interview of the person they are representing. The actors must listen and then repeat the words, mimicking the original intonation, rhythm, accent and pausing. They also work to replicate the physical score of the specific person. The process does not involve memorisation of lines but does require a high level of focus and active listening on the part of the actors. “With so much going on in their heads, this leaves almost no time to consider how they will deliver them” (Hammond & Steward 2008, 81). Blythe claims that this makes the performances “unselfconscious and free”. In a sense it is anti-theatrical and denies the creativity of interpretation on the part of the actor. Blythe acknowledges a bias towards a perceived real. “I do not deny that actors are highly skilled at interpreting their lines, but the way the real person said them will always be more interesting”. Hence, this is something of a radical shift, ironically, in some ways similar to Edward Gordon Craig’s call to do away with the actors and replace them with über-marionettes (2002, 159). Except, for Gordon Craig this would result in the destruction of a “debased stage realism … No longer would there be a living figure to confuse us into connecting actuality and art; no longer a living figure in which the weakness and tremors of the flesh were perceptible”. However, while it could be argued that the device of having actors listening to and repeating testimony from headphones in performance is in some ways drawing attention to the constructed nature of performance, the overall aim in Blythe’s work appears to be the representation or replication, through the vessel of the actor, of a real person on stage. In this respect, the desire is to represent, as accurately as possible, actual human “weakness and tremors”.
Within this approach and philosophy there lies a practical problem. That is, if the interviewee is interesting, dynamic and expressive then it is likely that the actor representing them on stage will appear this way too and hence contribute to creating an engaging performance. If the interviewee is not interesting and is withdrawn, this may have a negative impact on the aesthetic appeal of the overall performance. Interestingly, this would also seem to work along a spectrum. A very expressive interviewee engages, and a very withdrawn interviewee may inspire sympathy, curiosity or unease, all of which are potentially interesting. Those interviews that fall within the middle of the spectrum are potentially non-dramatic source material. In choosing to take a hard stance on non-interference, the practitioners may deny themselves the ability to use the theatrical form to its full potential to engage audiences and in turn arguably do a disservice to the interviewee. The latter is especially significant in terms of trauma victims who, by the very nature of their condition, may lack the ability to express it. Hence, direct representations such as those advocated in Blythe’s work may not elucidate the traumatic experience of the victim and at best may work simply to show the power of non-expression. These issues are significant because they relate back to the purpose behind doing this type of documentary theatre and the desired outcomes on the part of practitioner and the individuals who provide the basis for the source material. There is also the issue that there are different forms of engagement possible in theatre. Different theatre forms and techniques are used in order to seek different responses and different approaches may be more compelling for different audiences
As mentioned earlier, much of the documentary theatre that focuses on trauma is, intentionally or unintentionally, political. “One of the standards against which political theatre is judged is whether a performance shakes audiences out of complacency and unsettles easy identification, or as Dominick LaCapra puts it in another context, enables ’empathic unsettlement'” (Hesford 2005, 104-105). Empathic unsettlement is unlike “projective identification”, where an individual fuses or attributes his or her own feelings or thoughts to, or with, the other, in other words, a form of close identification. La Capra’s notion describes a situation where there is a respect for the other that does not result in one feeling the right “to speak in the other’s voice or take the other’s place, for example, as a surrogate victim of perpetrator” (LaCapra in Hesford 2005, 105). In basic physical terms, this is precisely what some documentary practices literally do when an actor, in performance, embodies the words, actions and phrasing of the other. However, there is some latitude in such practices because the actions come under the frame and conventions of performance. Regardless, in documentary theatre that seeks to represent the trauma of a real other, the nature of audience reception and response is of aesthetic, political and ethical importance. To seek simply to elicit emotional identification or compassion is to theoretically create only a partial understanding or engagement with the subject matter and risk offering up traumatic representation for vicarious voyeurs. Wendy Hesford argues that identification and compassion do not necessarily enable political and moral action (2005, 105). She argues “identification is an unstable rhetorical stance that, like sympathy, can function for an alibi for lack of action”. Furthermore, it provides us with a way to feel that “we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. As Susan Sontag observes, our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence (Hesford 2005, 105).
Turning to the specific example of Hush, one must note that New Zealand has one of the highest instances of child abuse in the world with respect to its population as a nation. In an effort to curb this horrifying trend, the recent Crimes Amendment Bill (2011) has made it possible to prosecute those who know of ongoing abuse and do not report it. While this new bill may force sympathetic onlookers to act, or risk a gaol term, for many New Zealanders, child abuse remains the province of the other. Otago University staff members, Stuart Young and Hilary Halba created the verbatim theatre piece Hush in an effort to address the wider issue of family violence in New Zealand. As the project was linked to the university, and a research grant, it was necessary to apply for and receive ethical approval. Unlike most documentary theatre practitioners, it was necessary for Young’s and Halba’s methods for gathering source material and the nature of its recording, use and storage to comply with tight university ethical standards. As such Hush is an interesting case because the research gathering methods adhere to an academic ethnographic methodology and a strict ethical code. This of course is significantly different to the research process undertaken by Hare and his collaborators for The Permanent Way. After obtaining approval, Young, Halba and their team of actor researchers interviewed a number of victims of family violence and various government and support workers such as counsellors and police officers. After they had gathered their material, writer and actor, Simon O’Connor and dramaturg, Fiona Graham, selected and shaped it for performance. The production premiered in 2009 in Dunedin and was revised in 2011 for a national tour. There were some subtle changes made, primarily in staging and lighting (possibly to suit generic theatres while on tour) but for the most part Hush is a pared-back production which utilises Blythe’s method of recorded interviews being played back (via visible MP3 players) then repeated by the actors during the performance. The visibility of the recording devices also serves to remind the audience that the actors are performing, albeit they are purportedly performing the testimony of actual people. The actors in Hush also studied and work to repeat the original physicality and vocal delivery of the interviewees.
Figure 1: Hush (2009), by Stuart Young, Hilary Halba & company. Left to right: Erica Newlands, Cindy Diver (also close up), Hilary Halba, Nadya Bennett, Simon O’Connor.
Figure 2: Hush (2009) Cindy Diver
Photographs Martyn Roberts.
In both stagings of Hush, we see six adult actors on a stage largely bare of props. The audience sits in dim lighting, beyond the stage, in traditional rows of tiered seating. There are chairs for the actors to sit on (one an armchair—the rest, of the mass-produced plastic variety) a floor rug and a dollhouse. The use of furnishings and props is pared back even further in the later production. The dollhouse remains a constant in both productions and presumably serves to remind us of the abused children who suffer a great proportion of family violence. Aside from this, the play operates in a fairly straightforward manner as the seated actors repeat the recorded testimony in interspersed sections of delivery. There are a couple of instances of conversations between two individuals, but for the most part the play unfolds as a series of juxtaposed monologues.
The success of Hush lies in its approach to the subject of domestic abuse. Where an obvious route may have been to focus entirely on instances of child abuse, the play instead balances testimony about child abuse with stories of partner abuse and abuse of parents. This highlights the culture that is said to foster abuse. The account of a daughter physically and verbally abusing her mother makes us realise that inflicting abuse is not just the province of adults in positions of power. For the most part, the abuse victims’ stories in Hush involve something of an arc or journey. We hear of their initial abuse and their attempts to deal with and move on from the experience. In some cases, it would seem that the victims have indeed moved on and are able to talk about the experience in hindsight, with some clarity. In others, recovery is not so clear. The victims’ testimonies are interspersed with commentary (also recorded testimony) from counsellors and figures, such as police officers, explaining matters such as why victims stay in abuse situations for long periods and the prevalence of family violence in society. The source material is often harrowing and in some instances verges on comedy and pathos. However, the restrictive nature of this particular form of verbatim theatre threatens to becalm the material and render it distant and as a subject for sympathy and not action. The inclusion of a forum at the end of each of the performances may work to counter this in some instances. Attendance at the forum is not compulsory, but does provide audience members an opportunity to further unpack the issues in the play through discussion, albeit not with the victims themselves, but with those who performed the victims’ roles and who conducted the research. While a potentially powerful device, its inclusion, however ethically driven, seems to suggest an attempt to fulfil a lack within the performance. The lack would not appear to arise from the quality of the actors or the nature of the material. Rather it comes from the particular nexus of approaches and strictures that direct and shape the staging of Hush and in turn create a number of absences, which I shall list below.
In keeping with the desire to reproduce the testimony as faithfully as possible, a number of restricting circumstances are adhered to. The interviews were recorded on video, in what appears to be the traditional seated, one-on-one interview style. This in turn directs, not only how the testimony can be physically staged, but also the expressive size and delivery of the original testimony. The seated interviews dictate that the actors representing the interviewees in performance are seated. Hence, a proxemic and staging restriction is created which allows for little movement on stage if the actors are to stay true to the physical actions of the interviewees. At times, the actors do move from one chair to another in order to indicate that they are changing roles, but the movement is deliberately without flourish and non-theatricalised. It does not appear to serve any other purpose than to suggest when they sit in another chair they are representing a different individual. Hence, the performance is reduced largely to the “talking heads” style of a filmed documentary.
This filmic reference also comes through in the delivery of the testimony. In the close intimacy of a filmed interview the interviewee would naturally tend towards a style of speaking that is also intimate. There is no need to express oneself to a group, or across wide distances, rather to simply look at and speak to someone who is close by. This is probably a necessary procedure as it insures a level of privacy appropriate for discussions of deeply personal issues. Interestingly, it would be a similar spatial arrangement to that of a counselling session. When the actors try to represent the original testimony faithfully, the performances are in turn, intimate and private, and the eye-line and head, oriented towards a single person, rather than a group. The actors presumably adjust the volume from that in the recorded interview, to one that can be heard by people sitting some distance away. This is an unavoidable dilation. There is not however in Hush, an apparent concomitant dilation of the expressive size of facial and bodily actions, or a change of gaze to incorporate the audience. This would no doubt feel a bigger imposition and a step further away from faithful reproduction. The effect in performance however is of a performance too small for the space. Watching in the distant darkness feels somewhat voyeuristic and remote. This is heightened by the seemingly unavoidable internalisation on the part of the performers who are split between recalling a past – remembering and performing all the physical gestures and expressions exactly, and attending to a present, in which they listen to voices literally inside their heads that they must mimic and coalesce with their physical score. To add another layer of complexity, many of the actors conducted the interviews themselves. Hence they are facilitating their own absence or writing over their own experience of, and role in, the interview.
While the desire to avoid overt dilation of the testimony to make it more theatrically engaging may be lauded as a sound ethical choice, it does not resolve the absence of the interviewer. The interviewer, his or her questions and their part in the interview are missing in Hush. It could be argued by not including this second individual and his or her role, the representation is incomplete and a skewing of that event. Some documentary pieces do include the interviewer, for example, the play version of Moises Kaufman’s and Tectonic Theatre’s, The Laramie Project (2001). Omitting the interviewer is not necessarily seen as a bad faith approach to documentary representation but it does inevitably create an absence that needs to be filled by some other means. While David Hare may find a clever writing device or swap around testimony between individuals to cover the absence, the makers of this more rigid form of verbatim theatre are restricted by their formal and ethical choices. There is some textual attempt to make links between the different testimonies, to cut the individual testimonies together in such a way as to make it appear that the second performer in a sequence is answering the individual who preceded him or her. Despite this, Hush often appears as a one-sided conversation. This is further influenced by the tendency for the actors to cast their eyes down when another actor is speaking. The absence of the interviewer ultimately means there is also a missing context and a missing link in the communication chain. We are reminded of this in two instances in the performance. The first where one performer stops mid-speech and asks “Is the camera on?” and the second where a performer responds to an unheard question with “Yeah younger”. Other than this we do not have the opportunity to hear or see the other side of the exchange and how the testimony may have been influenced by the situation, location and the changing expressions, gestures and indeed questions of the interviewer. A lack is created that the audience seem expected to, but are unable to fill. The audience cannot become surrogate interviewers because the sphere of communication does not fully reach or include them.
To understand the nature of this lack, it is useful to consider the research and its dramatized reportage processes involved in Hush and indeed in documentary theatre in general, as a series of exchanges. Not unlike its economic counterpart of capital relations, Hush operates on a series of exchanges, swapping the interview for the dramatized story, personal accounts for public empathy, and individual memory for an apparently “factual account”. The latter exchange will be discussed in more detail later. The nature, aims and assumptions underlying the communication exchanges involved in Hush are complex and are to an extent undermined by the same creative and ethical choices made in order to safeguard their integrity. In choosing to replicate the intimacy and narrow non-inclusive gaze of the interview room testimonies in performance, the practitioners are thus choosing to perform one side of a communication exchange. As such the expectation seems to be that the audience will become the surrogate interviewers in the performance. This is interesting because it means that rather than directing the audience to directly empathise with the interview subjects and to try to place themselves in their position or these individuals’ experiences, the audience are instead being asked to place themselves in the role and position of the interviewers. Potentially this is an ethically sound position for the audience as it preserves a respect and distance for the other. The staging however, does not allow for an easy endowment of audience as interviewer. As audience, we are not, for example, in the same spatial configuration or context as that of the original interview, and our greater distance from the subject makes it difficult to receive and engage with the subject at the same level of intimacy and sense of exchange with which the first encounter was staged. In effect the audience is cast as a mute interviewer who may neither question nor prompt, and is further denied the privileged physical and affect-inducing proximity of their original counterparts. Additionally, the formal choices to show the actors’ headphones and avoid dramatic conventions that pave the way for immersion in a fictionalised reality, also work to create something of an irreconcilable dramaturgical situation.
In Hush, the actors also served as interviewers. In performance then, this requires doubled absence on their part. They are required to absent themselves to an extent as creative interpretive artists. In order to embody a “real” individual in a highly technical manner, the actors’ speech patterns, gestures, expressions, words and reactions are pre-determined by those displayed in the testimony. The actors are also required to absent themselves in their other role and experience as interviewer. Effectively they must write over their own experience in performance. The latter, in particular, is a difficult act, because their own presence at such interviews will inevitably have an impact on how they read and react to the interview source material. The closeness that these actors have to the source material will have a potentially positive impact on the actor’s own ability to achieve a sense of understanding and perhaps empathic unsettlement for their interview subjects. However, their resulting subjective views may skew how they perceive an audience may react to the same material. To explain, in the intimate and privileged environment of the interview situation, a victim’s account may appear to the interviewer as uniquely harrowing, emotional and powerful. The presumption for that interviewer-actor is that this same power will be translated into performance—and more specifically, that this will be felt by the audience—if the original response is represented faithfully. There are however, within traumatic representation, particular difficulties that work against such translations:
The difficulty of listening and responding to traumatic stories in a way that does not lose their impact, that does not reduce them to clichés or turn them all into versions of the same story, is a problem that remains central to the task of therapists, neurobiologists, and filmmakers alike (Caruth 1995, vii).
Hence, the tendency to reduction is an inherent danger. There are other factors too that impede “successful” representations of the traumatic real in performance. In some instances there is a desire to show the abuse or trauma, as it happened. This of course is very difficult to reconstruct with any degree of faithfulness to the original situation and, if attempted, runs the risks involved in representing that which is often deemed unrepresentable.
The dangers of staging the visual in the theatre of the Holocaust are double-edged first that the anguish of suffering bodies will conveyed on stage as “real” and somehow comprehensible, manageable, able to convey what is actually an immeasurable absence, or second conversely, that the suffering mediated by “the toy gun,” will have the seduction of the unreal (Patraka 1999, 101-102).
While Hush does not attempt a visual staging of trauma, it does treat the testimonies as accurate evidence of abuse and how it is experienced. As such it is not documenting technically the original traumatic event but memories of that event, which are subject to slippage. Additionally, none of the sources in Hush are named nor are the testimonies consistently marked as belonging to one individual or another. Martin warns that the absence of exact sources is problematic. “‘Verbatim’ can also be an unfortunately accurate description of documentary theatre as it infers great authority to moments of utterance unmitigated by an ex post facto mode of maturing memory” (2006, 14). While documenting the recollection of such events is still valuable in that it provides an insight into how victims, for example, may deal with and describe trauma, it remains inevitably subjective reportage that changes over time. As such this type of documentary proceeds on a good faith basis and is a representation of a representation.
There is no “really real” anywhere in the world of representation. Depending on who you are, what your politics are, and so on, documentary theatre will seem to be “getting at the truth” or “telling another set of lies.” Representation creates multiple truths for its own survival; oral, textual, and performed stories invite repetition, revision, and reconfiguration (Martin 2006, 14).
Thus even the most accurate literal representation is seemingly doomed by the inherent subjectivity of representation itself. However, this may be, there still remains the worthy quest, such as that conducted by the makers of Hush, to approach the testimony of the other in an ethical non-interventionist manner. Perhaps, the answer to ethical representation in documentary theatre lies in enmeshing it deeply in academic ethics This does not however, seem viable as documentary theatre is considered part of an art form and a form created largely by practitioners who are not also academics. Furthermore, the intentions behind various documentary theatre projects will differ greatly as will the theatre makers’ feelings about where they are comfortable to sit on a perceived spectrum between fiction and reality. While Hush may not attain the commercially and arguably aesthetically successful heights and audience appeal of Hare’s The Permanent Way, the performance objectives and outcomes are likely to be significantly different. The self-imposed formal strictures that directed Hush are the means by which Halba, Young and their collaborators negotiated the ethical uncertainties of the documentary form. Voices booming in the ears of the actors protect broken, busted and healing victims. While, it can be shown that these uncertainties and constraints limited their ability to use all the creative ploys and devices characteristic of the theatre art form, the seeming anti-theatrical approach may have worked in their favour in other areas. Many of the abused individuals who were interviewed in the making of Hush also attended performances of the play. For some, it was a cathartic and affirming experience and has prompted action that goes beyond the play.
Abused mother Amanda found the experience of watching her own testimony and story on stage “quite emotional”. In Hush, we hear the recounted testimony of Amanda and her long-term abusive daughter Chrissie describing the abuse and the ways they overcame it. Mother and daughter claim the play empowered them to continue to share their story: “‘For Chrissie she really wanted to be able to show teenagers what the impact was’, says Amanda. ‘Shouldn’t let a whole heap of mistakes go to waste’, says Chrissie. It’s therapy through theatre” (Martin 2009). In this respect, Hush and other documentary theatre projects like it, may have positive outcomes that are more measurable in therapeutic terms for its subjects, than in conventional notions of aesthetic appeal or pedagogy. This is an area warranting further analysis, but Amanda’s and Chrissie’s example does suggest that audience expectations and reception may be significantly different and potentially more valuable for those who are the subjects of the source material.
Documentary theatre will remain a contested and diverse form because of its slippery and varied relationship to the “real”. As demonstrated, in the case of representations of the “traumatic real”, even more difficulties emerge as practitioners attempt to represent what has often been deemed unrepresentable. Attempts to create faithful literal representation in documentary theatre productions tend to also create severe formal restrictions. These restrictions in turn tend to manifest as absences within the final works. Those who choose a less restrictive path, such as David Hare and Max Stafford-Clark, seem better able smooth over and fill such absences by employing theatrical devices and creatively manipulating source material. While it can be argued that such practices are ethically questionable, the generation of a widely accepted ethical framework for representation in documentary theatre is unlikely as it is a form that is used by multiple groups and individuals for multiple purposes with different desired outcomes. It is this variety of choices, approaches and outcomes that seem to place documentary theatre on a series of spectra. The degree to which practitioners seek to literally represent reality and the degree to which they are willing to restrict their practice, correspond to where their final performance may sit on a spectrum of audience engagement or apparent veracity. Ultimately, in approaching such representation, it is useful to reiterate Reinelt’s claim that reality-informed dramatization in documentary theatre need, and only can ever aspire to be “in touch with the real but not a copy of it” (2009, 8).
Bottoms, Stephen (2006). “Putting the Document into Documentary: An Unwelcome Corrective?”TDR Vol.50, No.3, Fall 2006 (Cambridge MA: MIT Press), 56-68.
Caruth, Cathy (1995). Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Baltimore: John Hopkins UP).
Craig, Edward Gordon (2002). “The Actor and The Über- Marionette” in Michael Huxley & Noel Witts (eds.), The Twentieth Century Performance Reader (London: Routledge),159-165.
Forsyth, Alison, & Chris Megson (eds.),Get Real: Documentary Theatre Past and Present (NY: Palgrave).
Hammond, Will, & Dan Steward (2008). Verbatim Verbatim: Contemporary Documentary Theatre (London: Oberon).
Hesford, Wendy (2005). “Rhetorical Memory, Political Theater, and the Traumatic Present”,Transformations Vol.16, No.2 (New Jersey: New Jersey City UP), 104-117.
Little, Suzanne (2010). “Re-Presenting the Traumatic Real: Douglas Wright’s Black Milk” in Alexandra Kolb (ed.), Dance and Politics (Bern: Peter Lang), 233-254.
Martin, Carol (2006). “Bodies of Evidence”, TDR Vol.50, No.3, Fall 2006 (Cambridge MA: MIT Press), 8-15.
Martin, Megan, et al. (2009) “Family Violence Tackled Through Theatre”, television broadcast of 21 March 2009 from TV One (Auckland: Television New Zealand Ltd),http://tvnz.co.nz/entertainment-news/family-violence-tackled-through-theatre-2574970/video[accessed 17 May 2011].
Paget, Derek (2009). “The ‘Broken Tradition’ of Documentary Theatre and Its Continued Powers of Endurance”, in Forsyth & Megson (eds.), 224-238.
Patraka, Vivian (1999). Spectacular Suffering: Theatre, Fascism and the Holocaust(Bloomington: Indiana UP).
Reinelt, Janelle (2009). “The Promise of Documentary”, in Forsyth & Megson (eds.), 6-23.
Taylor, Diana (1990). “Theater and Terrorism: Griselda Gambaro’s Information for Foreigners”.Theater Journal Vol.42 No.2 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP), 165-182.
Trinh, T. Minh-Ha (1991). When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics (London: Routledge).