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Documentary Theatre & Intermediality

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Rand Hazou

on 21 February 2014

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Transcript of Documentary Theatre & Intermediality

In her director’s note, Horin describes how in devising Through the Wire her intention was to get behind the politically driven shroud of ‘anonymity’ thrown over asylum seekers, ‘to reveal the human faces and stories of these refugees and their supporters’ (Horin 2005).

Writing in the Herald Sun, Kate Herbert argues that ‘the production is compelling because of the richness and
of the stories it tells. It puts a face to the refugee and enables even sceptics to feel a connection to the victims of our detention centres’ (Herbert 2005).
Through the Wire (2004)
by Performing Lines
Through the Wire (2004)
by Performing Lines
Documentary Theatre & Intermediality
Dr. Rand T. Hazou
7arakat Project Leader
Theatre and Drama Program| La Trobe University
Bundoora Campus| 3086 VIC
T: 9479 1108| M: +61 0407 042 552 E: r.hazou@latrobe.edu.au

Asylum Seekers, Refugees & the Resurgence of Documentary Theatre in Australia
Documentary Theatre
Covers a wide range of approaches and practices including ethnodrama, oral history, testimony, and verbatim theatre. These practices and approaches share in common a methodology that involves utilising documentary material (newspapers, government reports, legal documents, interviews, etc.) as source material for scripts and performance.

Peter Weiss traces the development of the documentary theatre form to the ‘realistic theatre of actuality’ associated with Russian Agit-Prop, the experiments of Piscator [1893-1966] and the didactic plays of Brecht [1898-1956] (1998, 247).

The term ‘documentary theatre’ is said to have been coined by Piscator, whose political theatre epics not only utilised written documents performed in direct address to the audience, but also incorporated projected films and photographs into the theatrical event (Irmer 2006, 18).

The development of Documentary Theatre is implicitly linked to technological innovations in the media, the profusion of new media technologies in the public sphere, and the encroachment of these new technologies into the theatre. Given these implicit connections, what is the potential role that media technology can play in the presentation of documentary material on stage?
Documentary Theatre

A source of commentary on persons, events, and issues normally marginalised by popular modes of information dissemination and publicity in the public sphere.

Typically reassess ‘official’ versions of history.

Celebrates repressed or marginalised narratives.

Investigates contentious events and issues in local, national and international contexts, and can be seen as a catalyst for social change.

Involves a ‘presentational’ mode of acting, one which subordinates ‘the role of feeling in a process committed to understanding rather than emoting’ (1990, 62). For Paget, the acting style deployed in documentary theatre is a presentational approach pioneered by Meyerhold, Brecht, and Piscator (1990, 42).
Verbatim Theatre
Verbatim/vəːˈbeɪtɪm/: in exactly the same words as were used originally.

Verbatim Theatre is a specialised form of theatrical production and performance belonging to the larger tradition of documentary theatre.

As defined by Derek Paget it is ‘a form of theatre firmly predicated on the taping and subsequent transcription of interviews with “ordinary” people, done in the context of research into a particular region, subject area, issue, event or combination of these things’ (Paget 1987, 317).

The interview and transcription process gives the dialogue a certain ‘unwriterly’ and ‘spontaneous’ quality, and in performance this consistently signals to audiences the process by which the stories were originally told and recorded. This becomes ‘a way, a Brechtian way, of actually revealing to the audience the way in which you got the material’ (Paget 1987, 333).

As a result, it is the source material which ‘becomes the true protagonist in the drama’ (Paget 1987, 318)
Resurgence of Documentary Theatre in Australia
Riots and protests at Woomera Detention Centre 2002.
Between July 1999 and December 2001, approximately 9500 asylum seekers arrived on Australia’s shores seeking sanctuary and protection. Those asylum seekers that made it to the mainland were detained in immigration detention centres.

The Department of Immigration set down a series of guidelines for journalists seeking to report on immigration detention centres. The guidelines stipulated that ‘journalists may not interview any person who is detained under Australia’s immigration law, or photograph/film people in detention in a way that they may be identifiable’ (Seale 2006).

Journalists were prohibited from entering detention centres, except on occasional guided tours and only after signing agreements not to interview or film detainees or staff (Mares 12).
Government restrictions on the media provoked theatre makers into action. Theatre makers visited detention centres to meet with asylum seekers and detainees, to document and record their stories, and to disseminate their experiences and accounts in performance.

As a result he Australian theatre witnessed a resurgence in various forms of ‘Documentary Theatre’ engaging with the plight of asylum seekers in Australia
Resurgence in Documentary Theatre in Australia
Acting for Asylum Seekers
Acting for Asylum Seekers
Photo: Heidrun Löhr.
Documentary Theatre
The Personal
The Actual
The Real
The Authentic

The Political
The fictional
The Representational
The Credible

Riots at Woomera Detention Centre (2002)
Hunger strike at the Woomera Detention Centre (2002)
Shahin Shafaei recounting his experience in front of a video camera in Through the Wire (2004).
Krauth, K. (2005). 'Refugees: Between Reality and Performance', Realtime, 67.
‘The first time I see through the wire I am least engaged by Shahin’s performance… The second time I realise this man tells his story with the distance and abstraction of a writer/actor through necessity; he can be deported at any time. How can he juggle such emotions and fears day to day in front of an audience, give that writing, acting and watching plays was what led to his being persecuted and fleeing Iran in the first place?’ (Krauth).
‘In one of the most harrowing scenes a camera is set up in front of the actors, zeroing in on each face as they describe the circumstances that led to them fleeing their countries and families… A close-up of the actor’s face on a large screen above the stage means there is no place to hid and it’s hard work – a dense monologue, haltingly painful, at times beautiful imagery’ (Krauth).
Through the Wire (2004) by Performing Lines
The project involved the distillation of some 2,200 pages of transcripts from the Senate Select Committee’s inquiry. Version 1.0 presented material distilled from the transcripts of the Senate Select Inquiry that was ‘quoted verbatim’.
Staging the Select Committee’s inquiry into ‘A Certain Maritime Incident’.
Version 1.0's CMI (2004). Photo: Heidrun Löhr.
A CMI (A Certain Maritime Incident) (2004)
by Version 1.0.
A CMI (2004) by Version 1.0.
Stephen Klinder as the corpse of a drowned asylum seeker in Version 1.0's CMI (2004). Photo: Heidrun Löhr.
A CMI (2004) by Version 1.0.
There were two engines, one was not working, I was trying to repair it, it was an old engine but we repaired it as new, I never imagined that the boat would sink… I never imagined that the boat would sink… I never imagined that the boat would sink… I never imagined that the boat would sink… I never imagined that the boat would sink…
Stephen Klinder as the corpse of a drowned asylum seeker
in Version 1.0's CMI (2004).
A CMI (2004) by Version 1.0.
An ‘immediacy’ despite attempts to highlight the ‘absence’
In her online review, Rebecca Meston indicates that the ending engendered a deeply physical response; ‘at the end […] neither my friend nor I could leave our chairs; our legs too jelly-like to move, our hearts strangely beating out of control’ (Meston 2004).

Sarah Stephen recounts how at the end of the performance an audience member was overheard whispering to a friend, ‘We killed them. We could have gone and rescued them, and we didn’t’ (Stephen 2004).

What has also inadvertently emerged through the staging of the SIEV X survivor accounts is the willingness of audience members to coalesce the various survivor accounts of the SIEV X tragedy into a single narrative, mistakenly believed to be the witness statement of a single survivor (Filmer 2004; McCallum 2004; Rose 2004; Trezise 2004).
A CMI (2004) by Version 1.0.
The Intermediality of Performance and ‘Hypermediacy’
The term ‘intermedial’ is generally used to describe the incorporation of digital technology into theatre practice, and the presence of film, television and digital media in contemporary theatre. See Freda Chapple and Cheil Kattenbelt’s edited volume ‘Intermediality in Theatre and Performance’ (2006).

According to media and cultural theorists Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin, digital media can be characterised by ‘hypermediacy’, which seeks to make viewers aware of the medium being used, and which works to remind viewers of their desire for immediacy (Bolter and Grusin 1999: 34).

Digital hypermedia can work to evoke an immediate emotional response by multiplying mediation so as to create ‘a feeling of fullness’ and a ‘satiety of experience’ (ibid. 1999: 53).

Andy Lavender argues that the simultaneous co-existence of distinct media in intermedial performance can produce effects of immediacy that are deeply involving and more deeply pleasurable for spectators (Lavender 2006: 56).
The production begins with a letter written by Mnouchkine to one of the refugee women she interviewed on Lombok. In the letter, which is projected into the playing area, Mnouchkine contends, ‘We tell your lives as promised’ (as cited in Miller 2006: 216).

William McEvoy argues that the sense of being bound to a promise threatened to restrict the company to the ‘simple transmission’ of refugee experiences. At the very least, he argues, it subjected the selectiveness and omissions of the creative process to ‘severe limitations’ (2006: 217).

In Le Dernier Caravansérail, the company draws on Asian performance traditions to draw attention to the artifice of the theatrical event in an aesthetic that is antithetical to psychological realism. As Miriam Cosic contends, by drawing attention to the artifice of the theatre event, the company ensures that ‘the craft of make-believe is there for audiences to see’ (2005a: 16).
Le Dernier Caravansérail
[The Last Caravanserai] (2005) by Théâtre du Soleil
The production used wheeled platforms (similar to Greek theatre’s ekkyklema) to move actors and scenic devices on and off the stage The feet of the refugee characters never touch the ground, embodying the key themes of mobility and displacement that characterise the refugee experience.
Le Dernier Caravansérail (2005) by Théâtre du Soleil
The Refugee Review Tribunal hearing in Théâtre du Soleil's Le Dernier Caravansérail. Throughout the appeal proceedings, Al Bassiri is interrogated via videoconference, his facial image gazing blankly out at the audience from the confines of the television monitor .
Le Dernier Caravansérail (2005)
by Théâtre du Soleil
Determining Credibility
By enacting the refugee review hearing with the use of a video monitor, the scene draws attention to the way videoconferencing technology can adversely affect refugee determinations.

Determinations of protection claims are most commonly rendered on the outcome of ‘credibility’ assessments (Kagan 2002).

Examining the media effects of refugee determination interviews conducted via videoconferencing, Mark Federman convincingly argues that videoconferencing technology reduces mutual trust and understanding between adjudicators and asylum seekers while exacerbating cultural differences in non-verbal communication (2006: 433).

Federman points to the way videoconferencing, with its focus on the ‘talking head’, eliminates important cues derived from other parts of the body (440). Moreover, the time-lag inherent in the use of such technology and the reduced spontaneity and interactivity that results, ensure that participants experience more difficulty in achieving mutual understanding in video-mediated environments than in face-to-face encounters (442). .
Le Dernier Caravansérail by Théâtre du Soleil
Displacement and Placeless-ness
Phaedra Bell argues that the illusion of depth which television monitors normally carry disappears when they are placed on stage. According to Bell, images on monitors become ‘planes’ rather than ‘spaces’, and without depth, the monitors turn into ‘little boxes of displacement’ with on-screen characters rendered ‘placeless’ (Bell 2005: 568).

In this way, the use of the monitor in Le Dernier Caravansérail metaphorically suggests the way asylum seekers are detained in a ‘virtual Australia’, imprisoned in centres located in geographically isolated parts of the country and relegated to what Joanne Tompkins characterises as the ‘non-place’ in the nation’s social imaginary (Tompkins 2006: 110).

The television monitor works as an effective theatrical device to highlight the displacement of the Al-Bassiri character, transmitting spectral images of his face from the ‘placeless-ness’ of Port Hedland, far removed from the proceedings unfolding in the Melbourne appeal court where his case is being reviewed.
Julie Salverson describes how in attempting to be faithful to the integrity of a particular story, theatre practitioners often run the risk of resorting to an ‘idealisation of authenticity’ which emerges at the expense of aesthetic or theatrical forms considered as impositions or distortions to the re-telling project (Salverson 1997, 184).

Stephen Bottoms argues that: ‘verbatim theatre tends to fetishize the notion that we are getting things “word for word”, straight from the mouths of those “involved” [and implies that] ‘in the theatre, we can be given unmediated access to the words of the originary speaker, and by extension to that speaker’s authentic uncensored thoughts and feelings’ (Bottoms 2006, 59).

Bottoms describes verbatim theatre as disingenuous exercises in the presentation of ‘truth’, since such projects often fail or refuse to acknowledge their dual and ambiguous status as both ‘document’ and ‘play’ (Bottoms 2006, 57).

Bottoms argues that in documentary theatre ‘performances need to foreground their own processes of representation in order to acknowledge the problem and encourage audiences to adopt an actively critical perspective on the events depicted’ (Bottoms 2006, 61).
Bottoms, Stephen. 2006. 'Putting the Document into Documentary: An Unwelcome Corrective?'. The Drama Review 50 (3): 56-68.

Hazou, Rand (2011). ‘Hypermediacy and Credibility in Documentary Theatre: The Craft of Make-Believe in Théâtre du Soleil’s Le Dernier Caravansérail’, Studies in Theatre and Performance. 31.3: 293-304.

Hazou, Rand (2011). ‘Intermedial Voices: Documentary Theatre and the Refugee Experience in Version 1.0’s A CMI’. Platform. 6.1: 5-23.

Horin, Ros. 2005. Director's Note. In Through the Wire. Grant Street Theatre, Melbourne: Performing Lines and The Melbourne Theatre Company.
Irmer, Thomas. 2006. 'A Search for New Realities: Documentary Theatre in Germany'. The Drama Review 50 (3): 16-28.

Paget, Derek. 1987. 'Verbatim Theatre: Oral History and Documentary Techniques'. New Theatre Quarterly 3 (12): 317-37.

Paget, Derek. 1990. True Stories? Documentary Drama on Radio, Screen and Stage. Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press.

Salverson, Julie. 1997. 'Performing Emergency: Witnessing, Popular Theatre, and the Lie of the Literal'. Theatre Topics 6 (2): 181-91.

Weiss, Peter. 1998. 'The Material and the Models: Notes Towards a Definition of Documentary Theatre'. In Modern Theories of Drama: A Selection of Writings on Drama and Theatre 1850-1990, edited by G. Brandt. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Williams, David. 2006. 'Political Theatrics in the "Fog of War"'. Australasian Drama Studies 48: 115-29.
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