Our Reflection Talks Back

CAROL MARTINwww.americantheatre.org | August 22, 2017

In the digital post-truth era; theatre of the real doesn’t just dramatize change—in some case it embodies it.

In our post-truth era, theatre artists are creating work in which part of the subject is theatre’s very ability both to represent and interpret events. They are using theatre techniques outside of theatre to stage work that aims to change not only political convictions but also legal determinations. Artists are making work that raises questions about the relationship between our perceptual preferences and our ethical choices. Like the proscenium within the proscenium in Paula Vogel’s Indecent, a play about a real-life play, some of the best theatre today reflexively looks at its own ability to see and stage complex interpretations of challenging subjects.

Similar to Hamlet’s hope that Claudius would see himself in “The Mouse Trap,” this theatre holds a mirror up to our violence, politics, and despair and even to theatre itself. More than documentary, the results are provocative analyses of the events represented and the very act of representation.

Swiss theatre director Milo Rau, for example, created Five Easy Pieces in 2016 using Belgian pedophile and murderer Marc Dutroux as the pivot for telling the history of Belgium, from the Congo’s declaration of independence to “The White March” in October 1996, when upwards of 275,000 people outraged at the failures of both the justice system and the police marched on Brussels. That Dutroux was released after being arrested sparked outrage. He was finally convicted and imprisoned in 1996. The demonstration was called “The White March” because people carried white objects as a symbol of hope.

In Five Easy Pieces, seven children play the parts of Dutroux, his victims, their parents, and a policeman. Letters from a girl named Sabine Dardenne to her parents while Dutroux held her hostage, starved her, and sexually assaulted her are read by one of the child actors. Political accountability and theatrical culpability shadow the very notion of child actors narrating the story of a murdering pedophile. During rehearsals, psychologists were on hand to ensure the wellbeing of the children and their parents.

Spectators have to continually readjust their understanding of what is real in ways that produce critical responses and political revelations. In his review, critic Andrew Haydon characterizes the latter as the realization of a similarity “between the narcissistic desires of a child murderer and pedophile, and those of an imperialist power; the arrested development of a mind, or a culture, that allows it just to say ‘I want’ and to take that thing and keep it in captivity.” In its reflexive turn, the work’s use of children to enact such a subject does not deny the possibility that even making the work might somehow be wrong. “And in the background we have the specter of European colonialism, and of child rape and murder.”

Five Easy Pieces is both live and mediatized. The stage action is captured by live-feed cameras and projected on a large upstage screen. The title is taken from Stravinsky’s “Five Easy Pieces,” which he designed to teach children to play the piano. In Rau’s rendering, the children have to master mimicry, submission, emotion, and grief. “Our fifth lesson is rebellion,” explains Rau, “a rebellion that is poetic and allegorical.” As the founder of the International Institute of Political Murder (IIPM), whose work uses testimony and the reconstruction of real events, Rau sees Five Easy Pieces as an allegory for how we deal with trauma. “It’s not a documentary play,” Rau asserts. (See Debra Levine’s “Critical Act” about Five Easy Pieces in TDR 236, 2017 November).

A scene from “Five Easy Pieces.”

In Landscape as Evidence: Artist as Witness (2017), Delhi director Zuleikha Chaudhari staged fictional proceedings in a court room setting to make a case for the judicial usefulness of artistic knowledge and theatrical techniques in extra-theatrical circumstances. In collaboration with Khoj Studios, an international artists association, Chaudhari wrote a petition to India’s Parliament requesting that it consider admitting the testimony of artists in the courts, much the same as the testimony of economists, historians, doctors, industrialists, politicians, and lawyers is admitted. Her case in point: the destruction of the environment. In her petition she asserts that “the Environmental Impact Assessment does not consider issues of displacement, loss of culture and damage to sacred sites; it reduces the consideration to a cost benefit analysis.”

Why shouldn’t artists be called upon to give testimony from the vantage point of their specialized knowledge, Chaudhari reasons? She documents the loss accumulated by the National River Interlinking Project (NRIP), a reservoir, dam, and canal system stretching across several central India states, created to capture monsoon rains. Quoting Mihir Samson, a portion of the petition reads:

When an ecosystem endures the loss or extinction of an indigenous species or plant, it is not just the tiger or the native wheat variety, which has been annihilated. What has been destroyed is the tiger’s contribution to the ecosystem in maintaining a balance with other species, the native crop’s ability to nourish the human language, and its relationship to the tiger and the complex food culture surrounding the native wheat involving song, dance, spirituality, and countless other facets of the ecosystem’s bounty. This is the subtlety, nuance, and intricacy, the Petitioner entreats, that art captures better than other medium or piece of scientific or anecdotal evidence.  

For Chaudhuri and Khoj Studios art and law are both sites for the production of truth and reality, the assembly of narratives, the assertion of historical frames of reference, and the articulation of different visions of the present. Chaudhuri smartly staged the fictional trial at New Delhi’s Constitutional Club of India, where members of Parliament and bureaucrats regularly gather to discuss matters of public interest. She cast Yatindra Singh, former Chief Justice of the Chhattisgarh High Court, as the judge and Anand Grover, a senior activist lawyer performed the Lawyer for the State and Norma Alveres, an eminent environmental lawyer, as the lawyer for the petitioners. The performance followed such courtroom rituals as rising for the judge, taking oaths, and other protocols.

The first of three artist witnesses, Ravi Agarwal, showed portions of his film Have You Seen the Flowers as evidence for how people along the Yamuna River grew marigolds in an environmentally sustainable way. When asked if he was speaking as an “artist or an ordinary citizen,” Agarwal replied, “I am an artist because I am a citizen. There is no difference between the two. My art is just a method for talking about issues that I strongly feel about.” For Chaudhuri, art is both caveat and catalyst: “It can disarm frameworks of certainty by insisting on the ethical and epistemic vitality of the intimate, the desired, and the imagined. By doing so, it acts as a caveat to what people think of, or take for granted, as the ‘real.’ Equally, art can also provoke and call into being entirely new frames for constructing meaning. Here it acts as a cata­lyst. We are free to imagine other worlds because we engage closely with this one.”

Chaudhuri and her colleagues convinced the Chief Justice to agree that artists and their work should be admissible as evidence especially when “created in conjunction with the communities living in areas affected by such development projects,” and that such testimony “must be considered as proper evidence and not mere opinion.” As Chaudhuri summed it up, “The hearing has been made in the context of a performance, so it is interesting to see what validity the judgement has in the real world. The [real] conclusion remains a question.”

Theatre of the real—that is, theatre about real events—is relevant here. Documentary theatre, verbatim theatre, reality-based theatre, theatre of fact, theatre of witness, tribunal theatre, restored village performances (think of the well-researched performances at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass.), battle reenactments, and autobiographical theatre are among what has grown into a staggering oeuvre of practices and styles expressing a vast diversity of subject matter. The wide-ranging nomenclature and methods indicate the richness of artistic invention and the depth of scholarly inquiry. Rau and Chaudhuri’s work are just two examples of the radical expansion of subject matter, theatrical techniques, and potential real world resonance and results this kind of theatre has wrought. Faced with today’s trend of emotion and belief holding sway over facts, of the difficulty of apprehending truth, and of a preference for exegesis, these artists are making performances that neither literally represent the real nor invent it, but strive to comprehend it.

Legal theorist Richard Sherwin notes that visual images, YouTube, video, photographs, and amateur videos shot by conventional and smartphone cameras and even court records are used both to prove and to contradict legal testimony. Technology can no longer function as verifying a particular point of view. Interpretation is a constant variable. This state of affairs gives rise to certain questions: Does documentary theatre have a unique obligation to present the details of policy, for example, when its narrative is political? Should artists be obliged to present dialectical argument and counter-argument? Can documentary theatre, with its special relationship to the narrative structuring of emotion, become a model of inquiry?

In the 21st century, theatre of the real, including documentary theatre, has several defining characteristics, including the particularization of subjectivity, the rejection of a blanket universality, an acknowledgment of the contradictions of staging the real within the frame of the fictional, and questioning the relationship between facts and truth. Increasingly documentary theatre includes the difficulty of finding out the truth as part of its subject matter.

Troubled epistemology is not new to theatre. Digital documents form part of our neural dreams. We live in in a world populated with shadows, suspended between the virtual and the real. Podcasts become memories, film and theatre become history. The difference between waking and sleeping, between being live and being recorded, between being present and being a projection of presence, is collapsing.

The entanglement of the live and the digital in relation to the documents presented onstage demands an audience willing to collaborate in the construction of meaning as a vital part of the production. Site-specific performances, mixes of biography, autobiography, and documentary, fiction and nonfiction, film, visual arts, dance, theatre, and performance art are merging. As the digital world becomes the means of documentation, documentaries become much more than records. Even when absolute conclusions cannot be had, understanding itself is still a generative act.

To account for this world and master it, artists are building new patterns of knowledge to make reality whole again.

Carol Martin is a Professor of Drama at New York University. Her books include Theatre of the Real,Dramaturgy of the Real on the World Stage, and Dance Marathons of the 1920s and 1930s. She is the Guest Editor of the forthcoming issue of TDR “Reclaiming the Real” and the 2006 TDR issue “Documentary Theatre.” A PhD scholarship at UNSW is named for Martin’s groundbreaking work on theatre of the real. In July she gave two keynotes in Hong Kong at the first documentary theatre conference in Asia. She is the general editor of In Performance, a series of books devoted to international plays and performance texts with work from Poland, Turkey, Japan, Germany, China, Egypt and the U.S.