Panel examines the reality and ethics of the theater world

The panel discussion was inspired by the ’62 center’s recent documentary drama Arguendo, put on by Elevator Repair Service. courtesy of NYTimes.com
The panel discussion was inspired by the ’62 center’s recent documentary drama Arguendo, put on by Elevator Repair Service. courtesy of NYTimes.com

Last Wednesday night, Amy Holzapfel, associate professor of theater, moderated a panel titled “Theater of the Real,” a discussion conducted in the context of Elevator Repair Service’s avant-garde play Arguendo, which visited the ’62 Center earlier this month. The object of the panel was to determine the “true nature” of a new form of theater called “documentary drama,” a medium in which the real events, and sometimes even the real transcripts of an incident are recorded and presented dramatically by an actor or group of actors. The panel was specifically interested in the boundaries of the new medium – in “what makes something real [and] what makes something truthful,” both dramatically and ethically.

The theater department assembled quite an impressive committee to find the answer. Joining Holzapfel was Alexis Soloski, theater critic for the Village Voice and regular contributor to The Guardian, The New York Times and The New Yorker, along with performance artist and director David Levine, whose work has been exhibited in New York, N.Y., Berlin, Germany and at MASS MoCA. Also on the panel, but joining remotely via Skype, was actress, director and playwright Jessica Blank, whose work The Exonerated catalogued the personal  stories of forty death-row inmates in exactly the documentary method under consideration by the panel.

The panel opened with two short anecdotes from Soloski, detailing a story about the Tricycle Theater Company, an acting troupe out of London, England, who took almost exact transcripts from different courtrooms and confessionals and put them on the stage. The goal of the company, in the words of Soloski, was to “expose perceived social injustices,” revealing the critical political problems of London and the world as a whole. This was juxtaposed, then, with the work of another, more apparently trivial company The Civilians, a troupe whose first piece Canard, Canard, Goose catalogued the failings of the playwrights to find a history of animal abuse in the 1996 Disney film Fly Away Home. The goal of the stories was simple: to explain that documentary drama has no formula or set of rules. In Soloski’s words, the only requirement of good documentary drama is that “the world be made complete.”

Levine, however, took a different approach. His story was not about documentary dramas he had observed, but about his own transformation from traditional theater director to creator of performance art. “I liked making the shows, but I never liked the theatrical apparatus,” he confessed to the audience. “Nothing in the theater seems real to me.” Performance art, on the other hand, felt very real for Levine. Particularly interesting was his description of an exhibition he had done at MASS MoCA, in which he built a house, complete with plumbing and functioning appliances, in an exhibition space, and, eight hours a day, had actors perform the same three-act play in it on a loop. The magic of such an exercise, Levine explained, was that its original form gave his actors access to a level of experimentation and fluidity that does not exist as prominently or accessibly in a traditional theater setting. “Every time you confront a dramatic problem [in a theater],” he described, “it takes attention away from the play and onto the director.”

Last to speak was Blank, who took yet another approach to the issues at hand. Her story came from the perspective of a traditional director mired in the problems of writing and staging documentary drama. Of particular concern was the question of whether and to what extent the literal words of the characters presented could be altered or changed for the purpose of dramatic effect. “We don’t claim to be journalists,” Blank said, “but the documentary subjects we make are still political and fraught and that gives us a certain obligation.”

While Blank conceded that some words were moved around or inserted for the sake of narrative cohesion, she maintained that the effect of the work was still honest and successful. “When you are watching the play,” she explained, “you know [the actors] are not [the true subjects], but you’re still walking with them and hearing their voices and having a kind of identifying experience.” In other words, by preserving the majority of the literal truth of the action of the documentary drama, Blank asserts that one can achieve a level of understanding and empathy that would otherwise be impossible. It is the nature of the documentary dramatic form that gives it its power.

After a brief Q-and-A, Holzapfel concluded the panel with a quotation from one of Soloski’s recent articles: that documentary drama “signals a continued effort to be more live than live.” When put in the hands of last Wednesday’s panelists, that mission seems alive and well in the theater world.