Documentary Drama For The Classroom

A recent article in the cultural magazine Review, part of The Weekend Australian newspaper (9-10 Jan, 2010), stated

Australia is experiencing a boom in documentary and verbatim theatre. From plays about forgotten Australians to docudramas dealing with political scandals and crimes, a bracingly factual scene is reinforcing the stage’s role as an eagle-eyed witness to our times

Successful documentary drama is occurring today in several major cities and regional centres of not just Australia, but other countries as well. While this form of theatre-making may not always attract the populous crowds of mainstream productions, it nevertheless has its place in contemporary theatre.

Kenneth Pickering, in his excellent book “Key Concepts in Drama and Performance” notes it was the great French philosopher Jean-Paul Satre who called documentary drama “theatre of fact” in his essay Myth and Reality in Theatre (1966). Whether one calls it “documentary drama”, “documentary theatre” or “theatre of fact” is probably just a matter of semantics. As is the case with whether we refer to it as a theatre genre or theatre style? If there are differences between what some know as documentary drama and others know as theatre of fact, they are probably subtle.

Most agree the form as we know it today originated in Germany in the early 1960s, consisting of plays about recent historical events, including the horrors of the Nazi regime. But documentary theatre existed in the USSR around the time of the Russian Revolution, it was being examined by Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator in Germany in the 1920s and with The Living Newspaper (part of the The Federal Theatre Project) in America in the 1930s. In all cases, this theatre was political propaganda, set up for social change. The late Augusto Boal used his position as a city councillor in Rio de Janiero to create his Forum Theatre for social change, in effect creating another form of documentary drama based on factual events.

Documentary drama uses historical records of real events as its foundation. Verbatim theatre, according to Rosemary Neill’s article in Review, originated in the 1960s in regional Britain in order to “give marginalised communities a voice”. It goes one step further and deliberately uses the actual words of people involved in the event, onstage.

But can we use documentary and verbatim theatre in the drama classroom and if so, is it likely to succeed? Some of the most successful work I have undertaken with my senior high Drama students in the past three years has been doing exactly these types of projects.

It was borne out of the freedom entitled to me as a Drama teacher to choose a topic of my choice for my Year 12 Drama students to write, direct and perform as a major play for part of their final year assessment. I suspected if I chose a historical event of some worth and motivated my students to undertake heavy research in order to write and perform a quality script, they just might bite the carrot.

In 2007 my Year 12 Drama students wrote and performed their own documentary theatre piece on the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The following year my senior Drama class performed two separate pieces on Hurricane Katrina from 2005. Last year, my Year 12 Drama class divided into two even groups – one exploring the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, the other dramatising the events of the 2003 Columbia Space Shuttle disaster. This year, my senior class will dramatise the events of British nuclear testing in Australia during the 1950s and 60s. Each year I have tweaked these projects, learning from previous mistakes, so that the project improves the following year.

My findings indicate successful documentary theatre with school students should involve:

  • a factual event(s) worthy of investigation
  • substantial preparation by the teacher in advance of delivering the project
  • enough research information available for students (preferably web-based)
  • proper research by the students
  • effective scriptwriting based on adequate research
  • a clear understanding of both sides/perspectives of the event(s)
  • event(s) that has a lead up time – heightens the plot, builds tension
  • non-inflammatory theatre – try not to sensationalise
  • theatre based on the facts, rather than individual or group opinions
  • clear timelines, as a chronology of events can translate into scenes
  • episodic ensemble performances work well (as with Brecht)
  • time shifts (flashbacks etc) are very effective
  • fast jumps in location are also effective, but ensure it is clear to audience
  • investigative elements, cover-ups, secret documents, tension, victims
  • pockets of verbatim theatre weaved in (snippets of Presidential speeches etc)
  • students playing multiple characters with simple costume changes are acceptable

In 20 years of teaching, I can honestly say that I have NEVER got a group of senior Drama students more engaged in an academic task than those listed above, with this bullet list of tips being used along the way. It was hard work, but fun at the same time. Most importantly, if the teacher acts as a facilitator and guide, the students will feel they legitimately own their piece of documentary theatre and when they perform it to parents and friends, they will genuinely believe their small play has made a difference to the world they live in. You can’t ask for any more than that!

13 Responses

  1. Hoi-fai Wu says:

    Dear Mr Cash,
    I am Hoi-fai Wu, the Artistic Director of Pants Theatre Production, ( a professional Hong Kong theatre company receiving the yearly grant of Hong Kong Arts Development Council. Documentary theatre is one of my company’s major foci. I am planning to come to Australia in the beginning of December 2018 to research on the latest development of documentary theatre there. May I ask if documentary/verbatim theatre an individual school course in Australia? Reading your blog, I felt that it’s not a compulsory module in the drama course but when I read Paul Brown’s book “Verbatim Theatre”, it seems that there is an official syllabus of documentary theatre in Australian secondary school courses.
    Look forward to your reply.

    • Hi Hoi-fai Wu, to the best of my knowledge documentary theatre is not prescribed in any state or territory curriculum in Australia. However, it could easily be taught in the Victorian Certificate of Education Drama or Theatre Studies courses. Verbatim theatre is an option in the New South Wales Higher School Certificate Drama curriculum one task.

  2. Jordan says:

    This is a great conversation. Very helpful. I’m teaching IB MYP Drama, and these ideas are fantastic. Thank you!

  3. Joanna Lambert says:

    Thanks for this article!! Very helpful. I especially appreciate your list of criteria for a successful performance. I’m planning on introducing docudrama for the first time and am wondering… is 5 weeks enough time for a project like this?

    • 5 weeks might be a bit short, Joanna. I’d normally spend twice this amount of time doing a docudrama with a senior drama class. Student research, alone, can eat up the first three weeks of a project of this type.

      • Joanna Lambert says:

        Hmm… thanks for responding to me! I’m new to teaching a senior level class. Any suggestions of a smaller docudrama/verbatim performance that I can undertake in a 5 week timeline? I want to try this form of theatre but recognize I’m limited by time…

        • The topic/event is up to you, Joanna. Just adjust the expectations of the task according to the time available. Smaller topic/event = less student research. Have something where a limited amount of research is sufficient and is readily available. I’ve given a couple of docudrama tasks over the years where I researched dozens of web articles in advance and presented the students with a list of URLs! Have a short performance duration expectation, also. They should put it together pretty quickly if you cut some corners for them.

  4. Harton Mwanza says:

    What’s the format for a documentary drama script and is it possible to adapt it for television?

  5. Emma says:

    Very relevant and useful response. Documentary and verbatim are indeed engaging and worthwhile for our students in Drama. Love to read stories of success in the classroom!

  6. Megan Hancock says:

    I am currently on my teaching internship and am teaching Verbatim Theatre to year 10 Drama students. Just wanted to say thank you for the tips – it is hard to find good information on Verbatim on the net!


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