Pointing toward the real

I am reading a collection of essays about documentary theatre (mostly in the UK) edited by Alison Forsyth and Chris Megson titled Get Real: Documentary Theatre Past and Present. The first essay here is by Janelle Reinelt “The Promise of Documentary.” Taking up that idea of a promise, her opening gambit is to ask “When we go to the theatre to see a documentary play, what do we think we are getting?” This is a great question, especially in relation to what I might call the “reality quotient” of a documentary play.

Seanna McKenna in The Year of Magical Thinking at Tarragon Theatre (2010). This play is one of Reinelt’s two examples. The other is Justifying War: Scenes from the Hutton Inquiry — the UK judicial process looking into the suicide of arms inspector David Kelly

Theatre by its nature is a mechanism for the creation of fiction out of real world elements. The core perceptual process of theatre-making is to transpose actual bodies, space, objects into their projected fictional correlatives. That is the whole point — usually. (And this is why this entire question of putting the real on stage has my attention. Although the potential effects of political transformation are deeply relevant, my main interest (or at least my initial interest)  is in the formal mechanism of how this works.) What we think we are getting then — to follow Reinelt’s formulation — is an experience of a fictional world. Nearly anything placed upon the stage (pace States) will read as a fictional version of itself, transformed ontologically by the theatricalizing frame.

One strategy applied to counteract this perceptual framing, by documentary theatre is simply to tell us outside the frame (before the play starts in the programme or other advertisements) that certain elements of the performance — the text, the actor body, other documents — are indeed “real.” This is where expectation is established and the audience thinks about what it is getting.

As Reinelt points out, we can never really have direct access to the pure document since it is in this context always subject to narrative intervention and the creative treatment of its stagers. “Thus the tension between objective shards or fragments of reality and subjective treatments of it forms a structuring fault-line of all such representations” (8). What we do get however is a link between “the spectator’s quest and an absent but acknowledged reality” (10).  Reinelt argues for the indexical value of the staged documents. These objects/words point toward something that happened. They constitute a critical link: “This link sets  up a realist epistemology where knowledge is available through sense perception and cognition linked to objects/documents. While this status as conduit is never sufficient and is often deficient, it does characterise the unique attributes of documentary in contradistinction to fiction” (9).

Moving beyond the realist epistemology of the object, there is another actual aspect of documentary theatre resting in the phenomenological experience of the audience. Reinelt again: “Although its effects may not match its intentions, [documentary performance] does summon public consideration of aspects of reality in a spirit of critical reasoning. In this sense, it is a performative of a public sphere.” In this way, documentary theatre acts as a non-institutional forum for public consideration and debate.

Take-away: Through the indexical link between the staged object and its real-world provenance, the audience experience is changed. The same bridge that links the document to its real world antecedent also carries my theatrical experience of that document back to my real world existence in a potentially transformative way. The conduit to reality highlights the affective subjectivity latent in the relationship between myself and the personae represented as all real-world subjects.

Question: There is a third element in this relationship. In addition to the document and the spectator, there are also creative artists. How does my awareness of the technical processes/strategies/capabilities of staging documents support or subvert this affective experience of the story of the document?

Works Cited

Reinelt, Janelle. “The Promise of Documentary” Get real : documentary theatre past and present. ed. Alison Forsyth and Chris Megson. (Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, 2009): 6-23


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