(Un)Categorizing Documentary Theatre

In a recent class discussion in my performance theory class on the Cardinal Stage Company’s performance of To Kill A Mockingbird, we started probing problems and questions regarding theater as an archive. I was specifically interested in our discussion of Tom Robinson’s trial (almost the entire second act of the play) and how, during the trial scenes, the play seemed to shift from a single memory perspective (Scout’s) to a communal memory perspective (the citizens of Maycomb, Alabama). Generally, the class as a whole forgot that the actress playing Adult Scout was even on stage during these scenes and had trouble remembering her physical placement. My memory of the trial scenes from seeing the play only a week ago only includes visions of the ensemble making up the courtroom audience and the varied and compelling reactions each actor or actress brought to the stage during the trial.

A play like To Kill A Mockingbird seems to have a different connection to the concept of “documentary” than something like Blank and Jensen’s The Exonerated does, but I want to suggest that we can still consider it “documentary” in some way. Maybe it’s more in line with historical fiction or another generic category but, just like The Exonerated, which we clearly categorized as “documentary theater,” Mockingbird has an impetus toward memory and raises important questions and conversations about past attitudes and events. While the trial of Tom Robinson and its circumstances may be entirely Harper Lee’s creation, the theory is that these events were loosely based on a situation Lee herself witnessed and no one could argue that something like this couldn’t have occurred (and didn’t occur fairly often) in Alabama in the 1930’s.

The important question at the heart of these thoughts is how are we to define a category like “documentary theater?” I started thinking about this question in relation to Mockingbird and our discussion, but my thoughts quickly moved to the early modern period and its plays. As I’ve mentioned before in posts, in my political Shakespeare course, we’re studying Shakespeare’s plays in conversation with political philosophy and theory – mapping the political movements and events of the 16th and 17th centuries in relation to his plays and talking about how these ideas are still at play today in our contemporary political world. Is it possible, then, to consider Shakespeare’s plays as documentary theater? Don’t we construct our portrait of early modern England based on what he and his contemporaries wrote? Recent movements to extend the confines of the canon or to dismantle the “old white boy’s club” to include a more diverse set of histories make this very argument. If we are constructing our view of the past based on literature and writings, we should be taking into account as much of it as possible in order to construct a more complete and accurate history. If we’re using these works to “document” early modern England, can’t every play produced at that time be considered documentary theater?

Or, is the important missing element that of intention? In our discussion on The Exonerated, we often prefaced statements with, “well what Jensen and Blank were trying to do was…” and we used their instructions in the introduction to the play (several pages of strict intentions for how the play should be performed) to ground many of our thoughts about it. Does the category of documentary theater necessarily imply that the playwright(s) was intentionally trying to document something?

In an article on documentary theater called “Bodies of Evidence,” Carol Martin differentiates documentary theater from other forms of theater by saying, “it is useful to understand [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” (Martin, Carol, “Bodies of Evidence,” The Drama Review 50.3, Fall 2006: 9). According to Martin, then, the important element of documentary theater has little to do with the immediate presentation the audience sees and the actors perform and very much to do with the mediums and materials that go into making the play itself. By this definition, then, The Exonerated properly falls under the category of documentary theater, since it is made up of words and quotes from actual interviews with the real people represented by the characters. Mockingbird and something like King Henry V, then, cannot be considered documentary theater.

But, I wonder about the important point Martin raises here – “not everything in the archive is part of the documentary.” Martin uses this to transition into a discussion of subjectivity on the part of the playwright in choosing what should or should not be included. I’d like to focus, rather, on the materials that don’t get chosen – the actual material itself that is somehow in the archive but doesn’t get portrayed in the play. In The Exonerated, we can talk about these unused materials in concrete terms as any moment of interview footage that the playwrights did not include in the play. But, can we extend that even further? What about the background stories of the prosecutors, the police officers, the judges that Jensen and Bank didn’t even go looking for? What about the state and federal legislations in flux during the characters’ years of imprisonment that would have had impacts on their sentencing? How detailed does an archive have to be in order for it to be a complete archive? And, if the limitations of any documentary genre, including theater, only allow for the tiniest fractions of the archive to be documented and exposed, can’t we consider plays that take into account popular attitudes, opinions, questions of their time also to be using fractions of materials from a very large archive? In the Henry plays, Shakespeare essentially foretells the grounds for the English Civil War that will occur in England during the 1640’s (some 50-60 years after he writes the Henry plays). He is writing about a very specific moment in England in the late 1500’s and the circumstances of that moment that will ultimately allow for the Civil War to take place. Sure, it’s couched in language and dramatic plot devices in a way that The Exonerated seems to want to avoid, but at the most basic level of taking a tiny fraction of materials from a large archive of a particular contemporary moment, aren’t these plays doing the same thing?

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