Saturday, June 14, 2008

Greensboro: A Requiem/Golda's Balcony

Let's talk Documentary Theatre.

Very little will put me on my guard quicker than some sort of pre-show announcement that the contents of the following piece were taken from honest-to-god interviews with honest-to-god people, the sort of announcement that proceeds Steep's production of Greensboro: A Requiem. (I don't recall if Raven's production of columbinus earlier this year had a similar warning, but much of what follows applied there as well, so it's worth noting for sake of example.) The implication seems to be that this is 'real' theatre, that the show holds a greater connection to the world because it was born of the world. These words are lauded because they came from Everyday People who are simply relaying an experience rather than a Writer who is trying to relay her reaction and understanding of the experience through a filter of theatrical effectivity.

It's a stance I'm muddled on, because, while it seems to cheapen the abilities of a writer, it does contain the insurmountable kernel of connectivity, that weird mish-mash of voyeurism and empathy that allows us to feel for people who didn't have an opportunity to plan these words. As muddled as I may be on the validity of the documentary play vs. the fictional play, however, I have an intensely difficult time seeing the value in documentary theatre. Let's say, even for a second, that we do accept the hypothetical position that the Writer cannot approach the same sense of truth as Everyday People; that the documentary play is able to connect us to a deeper sense of humanity through this truth. If so, how are we so willing to find faith of interpretation in the Actors, the same faith that we cannot find in the Writer?

My trouble with DocuTheatre comes down to this: with the emphasis that the genre necessarily places on reality, no performance, no matter how touching, can have the same effect as that of the original speaker. Documentary is an inherently audio/video genre, because they allow for the reality and the initial source to be recorded for future reference. Filmed dramatizations of actions and events for which a camera was not otherwise around to witness are a big enough bugaboo; now take your favorite documentary film and imagine all of the talking head interviews as dramatizations as well, with actors portraying the experts and the witnesses alike.

This is what we are left with in DocuTheatre: dramatizations of Real Words, words which are useless because in the focus on the reality of the piece, we fail to register that we cannot, no matter how Real the Words are, reclaim the Real Emotions -- not in the sense that we are burdening these pieces with. And so the actors are left stranded in no-win situation. No matter how affecting they are, they'll never be able to pluck these words from the same core of necessity as the original speakers. And the unaffecting ones only serve to cheapen the words through maudlin dramatic pauses and well-timed crying. If there is video or audio recording of These People saying These Things, shuffle us into a theatre and play that -- you'll never get anything better.

So there's that. Of course, Greensboro certainly didn't get any help from the fact that it was ridiculously unbalanced and agenda-driven. I know, I know, asking for a show about a conflict that left five dead at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan to be balanced is a hard bargain, and I had pretty much written it off as me tilting against windmills. That is until the end of the first act, which closes on the following line spoken by an anti-Klan activist (I may be paraphrasing a bit): "The biggest mistake we made after World War II was teaching our children that the Nazis were monsters. The Nazis weren't monsters; they were people. That's the problem." Great sentiment -- completely out of step with the rest of the show.

White supremacists, Nazis, skinheads, Klansmen -- all meld together in Greensboro in an almost nameless, faceless, meld of "Bad Guy". The one character from the pro-Klan side of the story who is given a chance to become recognizable finishes the show by asking the character representation of playwright/interviewer Emily Mann whether she got everything she needed from him. Her response is a smirk followed by an "absolutely" drenched in irony. In that one word, any sense of journalism or even interest in the human condition is demolished. It's a useless exchange, one that serves no purpose in the context of the script other than an easy way to undercut the words of a (Real) man that we spent a good chunk of the evening trying to get a grasp of. (The character of Mann, always on stage and almost always engaged, is a huge part of the show's problem. In this situation, I can't help but think that Mann herself is the root of much of this, but she is done no favors by the woman portraying her, with all of the head-nodding, pen-chewing and general emotional guideposting she gives us.)

It's one thing to present a play that is unapologetically one-sided and agenda-driven. I may not enjoy it, but that alone won't bring me to tilt any windmills. But to know better? To end your first act on a sentiment of humanism whose face you have and will continue to spit into? Emily Mann, that's shitty workmanship. Steep Theatre, that's shitty workmanship.

So why does the bioplay get a pass? I saw Pegasus Players' Golda's Balcony the next night, why am I not hanging Janet Ulrich Brooks out to dry because she'll never be the real Golda Meir? I don't know, because she does a great job? Because it's a very good production, anchored by Brooks as well as Tom Burch's kitchen/dining room thrust, set off from the audience by a moat of sand? (Although, Denise Karczewski's distracting and seemingly inane lighting cues about drove me batty until they calmed down thirty minutes or so into the piece.)

Really though, I think there is a reason for the difference. It certainly doesn't hurt that these plays rarely purport to be a direct transcription of the person's words, but in addition to that, these bioplays don't offend our notions of reality because the people they are based on aren't quite real. Whether it's Golda Meir, Danny Kaye or Ann Landers, the subject is already a bit of a character in our minds. Famous faces are a little subreal; we've already fictionalized their lives so it's not quite so much of a stretch to watch someone else be them for an evening. That's not the case with Everyman -- it registers as a triumph for an everyman to suddenly be recognized on stage, in film, or elsewhere for exactly who they are. So when we see them on stage, in film, or elsewhere, we want them to be exactly. who. they. are.

And theatre just can't do that. Theatre can't be Reality. It has to make its own.



Scott Walters said...

Paul -- You make some interesting points here -- lots to chew on. I'd like to draw a distinction that might complicate matters. As someone who is very strongly in favor of community-based theatre work, which often is crafted from interviews, I wonder what effect the context might have on the matters you discuss. Does the documentary voice have more power when the piece is performed in the community where those voices live? Does Anna Deavere Smith's Fires in the Mirror play differently in Crown Heights than it does in Wichita? A friend of mine did a production created from interviews of her Nashville community about the moment when they either committed to a religion or fell out of a religion, and she played to packed houses and by all accounts the show was very powerful. Is it a different show if it moved to NYC?

Also, I would wonder about the "smirk" you mention, because this may or may not be something the author intended. Given that the actress playing Emily Mann had a tendency, as you say, to overplay emotion, I wonder about the source of this emotional spin. In documentary theatre -- well, hell, in any piece of theatre -- the way a moment is played can completely color its meaning. A smirk, a blocking choice, a tone of voice can easily turn a moment of ambiguity into one of overstatement. I haven't read this particular script, but is it possible that the production may have spun the story more than it should have been? So often, a director and actors will take sides in a play instead of allowing the complexity to resonate.

But you raise interesting questions about documentary theatre.

Paul Rekk said...

Hmm... in terms of local voices, I think I would have the opposite reaction as that of the bioplays. If the famous are subreal in our minds, I would think that those around us would be superreal, which would only increase my desire to see and hear the original speakers.

For example, I would be much less satisfied with actors performing a piece culled from interviews about the Iowa flooding than I would one based on Katrina interviews. Similar situations, but the fact that I connect to the Iowa flooding directly leaves me wanting a true representation. Of course, I also strongly believe in the effective use of non-actors as well, and I can't think of a better situation to do so.

That said, of course these kinds of shows are going to play well -- Greensboro was almost sold out the night I saw it and it's been above average critically. Human interest sells, no matter where you're putting it up.

You're right about a biased production vs. a biased play. This specific production of Greensboro definitely continued to twist as necessary, but judging from the cross-section of interviews used and their placement within the piece, I'd say there's a decent (more than I'm willing to put up with) amount of agenda in Mann's work as well.