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 semantics.
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 around the time of the Russian Revolution, it was also 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 most cases, this form of 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 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 recent years has been doing exactly these types of projects.
It was born 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. Later, 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. Other documentary drama projects include the plight of Hart Island, a publicly funded cemetery in New York and the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Each year I have tweaked these projects, learning from previous mistakes, so that the project improves the following year.
Tips For The Classroom
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 my 30+ 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!