Documentary Theater: What is That?


(Anna Deavere Smith- Fires in the Mirror)

By labeling The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs as nonfiction, Mike Daisey placed his piece into the genre of documentary theater (regardless of the fabrications that were eventually found.)

Documentary theater? What does that mean?

Documentary theater is a genre that engages real people and/or current events in a theatrical piece (my own definition).

For example,

Anna Deavere Smith is most famous for her piece Fires in the Mirror, which she crafted from interviews about the Crown Heights riots. She then plays each character herself to tell the story.

The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman tells the story of Matthew Shepherd is also based on interviews, and eight actors portray more than 60 characters.

The Civilians is an “investigative” theater company based out of Brooklyn. The difference in what the Civilians do interviews are sometimes combined into different characters (Cosson called them “composite” characters at the Truth in Theater panel), and for that reason, doesn’t hold to journalistic standards. One of their most famous projects is entitled This Beautiful City— they went to examine the evangelical movement in Colorado Springs. While they were there interviewing people, the Ted Haggard scandal came out. The Civilians also make musicals, which makes their work distinctive from other companies.

Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen’s The Exonerated was “culled from interviews, letters, transcripts, case files, and the public record. The Exonerated tells the true stories of six people sent to Death Row for crimes they did not commit” according the official website .

While Mike Daisey’s work as a monologist certainly isn’t verbatim (he does not use a tape recorder or video camera as some of these artists do), he crafted his piece from the interviews he conducted in Shenzhen, which places his work into this category. In addition, his call for activism and his desire for his audience to seek out more information about FoxConn and Apple falls into the idea that documentary theater often engages its audience and creates a conversation about news/current events.


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