Defining the field

from the Domestic Archaeology Series by textile artist Diane Savon.

Defining the field is one of the primary objectives of this research program. There are numerous terms already in use when talking about performance that includes real elements and each term is both expansive and limited in particular ways. It is also useful to consider the terminology used in cognate disciplines like art, film and TV. And also thinking along that line to consider disciplines where there doesn’t seem to be related terminology (or perhaps just that I am not aware of). For example, what would reality-based music be or be called?

Documentary theatre: This is a common term, especially in the UK, and is used to refer to verbatim theatre or tribunal theatre. The “real” element here is the text. The words being recited as part of the performance are gathered from direct interviews or from transcripts (usually from trials and hearings, thus ‘tribunal theatre’). There is no expectation that the performers are the same real people that originally spoke the words. This term is useful and it is the term that I have chosen for the working title of this project in the upcoming grant application “21st Century Documentary Performance in Canada.” One significant advantage of this term at this point is that we have a common familiarity with documentary film and can extrapolate from that knowledge what documentary performance might be. Documentary film is much more expansive in its inclusion of “real” elements, using the actual people being themselves, — Film texts on the subject call these people “social actors” (great!) — and also actual locations, objects and events. On the one hand, I very much appreciate the inclusion of all these elements. On the other hand, reality-based theatre rarely (never? why not?) includes all these elements but rather tends to select some and not others in each performance. (hmm….)

Verbatim theatre: This form emphasizes the text. Seems to be equivalent to documentary theatre in the UK where both terms are used interchangebly.

Site-specific theatre: In this genre, the “real” element is the place of the performance, with the site performing as itself. Often the emphasis of the narrative content is on the stories of the place and so the site is not passive. The “here-ness” is a strongly attractive and compelling aspect in the creation of the performance. Would it be possible to de-emphasize the site and still use it as a real element in the way documentary film does? Sometimes, site-specific theatre makes use of verbatim approaches to text but sometimes not. Sometimes the text of the performance is a fictional response to the site rather than a historical recreation. Likewise performers in this genre are rarely themselves but are actors performing roles.

Reality TV: There is no direct equivalent to this in live performance. Let’s see if I can parse this out. For reality TV, the key characteristics are social actors (non-actors) as in documentary films being themselves. The site is real as are all the props and events. (Leaving aside the ridiculous manipulation of the situations). Perhaps in theatre, something like participatory performance might come close. I am thinking of Rebecca Northan‘s Blind Date, where an audience member is selected to become part of the performance and go on a “blind date” with Northan’s character Mimi the clown. The audience is sort of real, although of course they are also sort of acting/pretending. Northan is a fully fictional character. The real site is the stage and theatre itself, although again this is transformed to a restaurant and other fictional locations by the pretense. Other performances to think about in this context would be the “Truth or Dare” show by Loose Moose (Northan’s brother Jamie with Lindsay Mullan) or works of performance art where a key characteristic is the “realness” of the performer doing actual real stuff to/with his or her real body.

Non-fiction: Dominantly in use for printed works. Non-fiction film? non-fiction art? non-fiction theatre? Non-fiction theatre feels like an oxymoron where all theatre is de facto some kind of fiction or else it would not be theatre. This is a key puzzle for this project. By definition, theatre/performance seems to involve some kind of fictionalizing element, some kind of “as” as opposed to “is.” The medium of print does not seem to carry the same kind of fictional framing that theatre does, (even film does to some extent). We can have non-fiction uses of a,b,c ‘s. Non-fiction uses of human bodies, voices, events would be storytelling or lecturing or reporting?

Defining one’s terms is typically a pretty basic part of a project like this — and can be almost mechanical. Here, I get the sense that this challenge to define terms will ultimately become a core pillar of the project, involving rethinking the basic ontology of what theatre is and how it manages real and fictional elements in its creation. This is just the tip of the iceberg…


One response to “Defining the field

  1. I think for Non-Fiction the paragon in printed works would be technical writing: manuals. It would seem to follow that Non-Fiction theatre would be a distillation of its instructional elements: demonstration or presentation. It’s interesting to note the different relationships with time among the categories here: verbatim/documentary deals with the past (this is what happened); reality TV would deal with the present (this is what’s happening); Non-Fiction deals with the future (this is what will happen if).
    I also think site-specificity is a tool rather than a category onto itself: it can be used as part of one of the three styles here, or as part of a fiction. It is easy to imagine a piece that uses a specific site as a metaphor or contrast rather than thing-in-itself. That a site can also be used as a document confuses the issue, thinking for example of Kristen’s women’s prison piece: it used the site as the focal point without ultimately using the site as set. A piece may use a specific site for both the document and the set, but it is not necessary that they are intertwined, and thus it is not a separate category.

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