Documentary Theatre

Polina Nikitina

The concept of “documentary theater” has existed for more than 90 years in theatrical, cultural, and public discourse. In the last decade, the documentary theater has become more and more rooted in the minds of the modern audience, becoming a common practice. In the mass consciousness, the documentary theater is mainly associated with the term “verbatim”.

Verbatim (from the Latin ―verbatim –  “spoken”) is a technique for creating a theatrical performance that suggests the rejection of a literary play attracted from outside. The material for each performance consists of interviews with representatives of the social group to which the heroes of the planned performance belong. Transcripts of the interviews make up the outline and dialogues of the verbatim (documentary play).

Documentary theater, unlike traditional theatrical practices, does not create, but comments on reality. One of the first documentary theaters in Russia was Teaтр.doc, created in Moscow in 2002. His concept was “the stage as a mirror of the world”, and the goal was for the viewer to recognize himself and perceive himself as part of society. In this way they created empathy, which is sorely lacking in Russian society. In addition to being an important artistic phenomenon, Театр.doc has also become a social and political actor in Russian society. In today’s Russia, the theater (not only documentary) has become another civic institution. On its stage, Театр.doc produced a reflection on many political events of our time, as well as a reflection on the events of the past that led to the current situation. Among staged documentary performances were «БерлусПутин» (2012), «Болотное дело» (2015), «Сентябрь doc» (2016) «Час 18» (2015), «Как мы хоронили Иосифа Виссарионовича» (2015). The performance «Час 18» (2015) dedicated to the last painful hours of the life of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky (he was slowly dying in a prison cell from pancreatitis for 1 hour and 18 minutes) was based on Magnitsky’s letters where he complained about the conditions in the prison cell. The theater, in this case, not only explores the tragedy of a person but also becomes another media describing and analyzing the situation in the country.

The performance “Болотное дело” was based on interviews of participants and their relatives in the famous protest on Bolotnaya square. It passed the voices of these people to the masses as if it was expanding the participants of Bolotnaya square protests to the theaters’ audience.

But not only contemporary events and personal interviews become the basis for a documentary performance. For example, Dmitry Volkostrelov staged the play “Пермские боги” (2019) at the Perm Academic Theatre-Theatre. This performance belongs to the type of documentary performance based on historical documents and sculptures of the Komi-Permyaks. In the performance “Хорошо темперированные грамоты” (2018) staged by the “театр post”, Dmitry Volkostrelov used birch bark manuscripts from the 11th–15th centuries and music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

In the Russian documentary theater scene, a lot of things were created under the influence of European documentary theater; the influence of the theatrical group Rimini Protokoll was one of the most significant.

Documentary theater in Russia is very popular, especially among the active urban population. This is connected, of course, to the reaction to social, economic and political events, but also with the field of discussion, expression, and protest, which is narrowing day after day. This practice is returning from the past. For example, the playwright Sergei Tretyakov with his partners from the widely ranging association of avant-garde artists “The Left Front of the Arts” began to use the interview as the basis for the performance in the 1920s.  And it was the Soviet theater of the 1920s that started to comprehend the events of the past and present by using the methods of documentary theater. One can cite as an example “The Overthrow of the Autocracy ” – a propaganda production of 1919 conducted by the studio of the Theater and Drama of the Red Army under the direction of Nikolai Vinogradov-Mamontov.  Theater director Nikolai Evreinov in his texts of the early 1920s mentions the idea of a theater of staged memories (today, it would be called psychodrama).

The past is also comprehended by the methods of documentary theater. As a striking example, I would like to give the following experience. This is the theater laboratory “Archaeology of Memory” at the Sakharov Center (curated by Anastasia Patlay), which in 2017 initiated the drama workshop “Memory of the Great Terror”. The task of the laboratory participants was not to create texts for the scene. With the help of drama, the participants interacted with certain historical documents, for example, the diaries of the repressed. Here, the important result was not the stage play but the experience of interaction between the participants and the texts. In their production of “Молодая Гвардия”, Dmitry Yegorov and Maxim Didenko consistently deconstructed the Soviet myth about the Young Guard, using, among other things, the Soviet documents and interviews.

Even though documentary theater is primarily a phenomenon of professional theater, it can also be an activist practice, especially when it is comprehending the memory of the Second World War, the “difficult past”, etc.

Description and possible formats:

The most common form of documentary theater as an activist practice may be verbatim.

​​Verbatim is based on interviews and other formats of direct speech. On the basis of the interviews and their direct verbatim transcript, a documentary play is created. It can be staged as a performance or a reading. 

This form of theater helps with the equal representation of the most diverse groups in the population, as it gives voice to all people. The interview conductor, even if afterward he will be the production director or the actor, is only broadcasting this voice without appropriating it.

The procedure:

  1. Verbatim is a theater with an unexpected ending. There is no need to understand in advance what the final message will be. It comes from interviews. Often the biggest surprise of the interview conductors is the unexpectedness of the respondents’ answers. Verbatim starts with gathering interviews. The interview should be recorded and transcribed word by word, as it were. Before starting the interview, the creators should decide on the main question:  who and what am I asking about?
  2. From this, it follows that the interviewer needs to talk to the hero in a specific way so that the respondent can be distracted from giving the prepared phrases for an answer. The task of the actors (performers) can be perfectly embodied in the slogan of Театр.doc – “Theater in which actors do not play.” 
  3. Thus, the creation of a verbatim can be schematically defined as follows: choice of a topic and, accordingly, a social group of characters – a collection of interviews – word-for-word transcription of interviews – assembly of texts (writing a documentary play/script) – staging – performance – discussion.

Documentary theater is based on oral and written documents. In the case of work with the memory of World War II, verbatim can be based on collecting interviews with participants in wars and their relatives, creators of art about World War II, conversations with people who visit memorials and memorial complexes associated with World War II, participants in memory actions (an interesting verbatim could have been obtained from interviews with members of the Immortal Regiment), etc.

In addition to verbatim, forms of documentary theater can also be “documentary mockumentary” (artificial construction of an oral or written document), and documentary choreography. The only important criteria for documentary theater is the underlying document itself.

If we consider documentary theater an activist and educational practice, thus, an important step (and sometimes the only one) can be a laboratory. Here, we can work with participants in a traditional way by collecting and comprehending documents and memoirs of their relatives. There are also other methods, such as analyzing diaries, archival documents, textbooks, and teaching aids, in which the Second World War is examined, as well as the materials on administrative and criminal cases related to statements about World War II, etc. In his book The Polish Theatre of the Holocaust, Grzegorz Niziołek writes about the reflection of the Polish theater on the Holocaust. But also he writes about the fact that the theater existed during the Holocaust, when, despite the well-known facts of Poles helping Jews, the majority of the Polish population, according to the author of this book, took the position of “outside observers” of the Catastrophe. Thus, by comprehending in the format of a documentary theater the memory of the Second World War and, for example, the Holocaust, we can return to this reality.

Documentary and “artistic” theater both, in the context of reflection on the Second World War, perform the function of a “memory prosthesis”. In her book The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust, Marianne Hirsch writes that “the descendants of people and communities that have experienced extreme collective upheaval—point tragedies such as wars, genocides, merciless violence, and long-term reigns of repressive political regimes such as authoritarian dictatorships, as well as dramatic political change such as coups, revolutions, or uprisings—often feel that they are strongly influenced by the events preceding their birth. These events are present in their minds not as a memory, but as a post-memory”. The category of post-memory describes the position that the “after generation” takes in relation to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who lived before, that is, to events or historical periods that they “remember” only through stories, documents, images. Post-memory also takes its form from the behavioral reactions of people who have experienced certain historical events – how they talk about them, what they are silent about, what kind of narrative exists in society, and whether it is disputed or generally accepted.

The connection of post-memory with the past takes its form not through memories (that cannot be controlled by a person), but through the desire and need to join this past. That is, through conscious action. Theater, cinema, television, museums are the practices of public history. For the post-memory generation they are so-called “memory prostheses” – they help to see and form ideas and memories of what you have not experienced, but what is pressing on you.

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