When I mention the phrase "documentary theatre" to most people, they look at me a bit confused. I've found that this phrase even causes quizzical looks amongst my fellow theatre artists. I often try to describe it as "theatre based on real events" or even relating to people's knowledge of documentary film to start a conversation about it.
Coming from a high school that had no formal theatre program and produced only one musical a year, I first encountered documentary theatre back in my junior year of college during a production of The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project. The School of Performing Arts cast the show with both actors from our department and with non-actors from the campus community. The result was magic. It was a true community effort. As an actor, I was thrilled to be working with my fellow classmates who weren't performing arts majors, most of whom I had not met before, and many of whom were gay and had experienced firsthand the kind of discrimination explored in the play.
We performed several nights of shows together, but more than that, we became friends, allies. I spent hours upon hours in the green room talking to each and every cast member, getting to know them as people, and when our lobby display was defaced on opening weekend with a number of unmentionable phrases and slurs, we found our newly formed friendship became a strong foundation upon which to build a plan for activism. We organized prayer circles, we chalked sidewalks on campus, we planned workshops, lectures, and other interactive events connected with the performances to raise awareness. When the lights came up at the end of the show, the play may have come to an end, but the conversations were just beginning.
Getting to work with Moises Kaufman of Tectonic Theater Company (you can read more about his incredible work in the field of documentary theatre here) during a workshop he held for our cast was a rare and wonderful opportunity for me, and I remember being interviewed for the school newspaper at the time about his visit and the play. I was quoted as saying "I'd like to do this kind of theatre someday. It's innovative, and isn't that what theatre is supposed to be?" Looking back on this whole experience, I realize all over again what gift it was. It is my wish that everyone gets the chance to experience something as transforming as this was for me.
I still feel this way. A decade later, and I've returned to these documentary theatre roots with this company of my own. For me, in the year 2015, I cannot imagine feeling stronger about a project than I do about this kind of work. We've always needed truth onstage, but now, more than ever, we need to wield performance as a tool for digging into the real stories of our fellow human beings and forging connection. Sinking down below the hum of the major media outlets, going deeper than mainstream offerings, until we get to the very floor of this ocean of human experience. Real human beings with real stories, straight from their hearts and mouths.
I have had the privilege of talking to people all over the country, many people from my very own city of Boston itself. After you hear someone's story, it is impossible to look at the world through the same eyes. Riding the subway, chatting with a neighbor, even buying an iced tea from a Starbucks barista feels different. After a documentary theatre interview, I find that my belief in humanity is stronger, that my hope is renewed, that my faith in my community has grown.
During this interview process, the world has expanded in ways I didn't know it could, feeling more beautiful and complicated than ever before. At the same time, the world feels smaller and more personal, too. The dozens of people we've talked with across the country now figure in my mind when I think of exactly who my "fellow Americans" are: a man from Egypt studying to be a dentist, a woman approaching her 70th birthday who says her proudest moment is yet to come, and an operating room nurse who believes that it is her mission to help and serve others. I feel grateful for their presence in the community at large, regardless of where in the country they live.
I hope that you continue to follow the unfolding of these stories with us, and that if you are able to, you join us in the fall when we unveil this play. Just as The Laramie Project changed the landscape of my life, I hope our American Dream play will change you, too.
There is a blog I use to read all the time called “Why We Write.” Writers from TV and film contributed posts trying to answer that very simple, yet incredibly difficult question. It’s one I’ve asked myself a lot over the years. I’ve never had any doubt that I have to write. It is often tortuous and often the space where I am most self-critical, but when I don’t do it, I feel like my right arm has been cut off. But that doesn’t answer why, and if you know anything about me, you know that I am obsessed with understanding why.
My favorite post in this blog series came from Hart Hanson, and in particular a passage in which he explains that:
"I write because I’m totally confused by the world. I never know what’s going on. I absolutely never know what absolutely anything absolutely means…Writing is a way for me to organize the chaos around me. I can corral bits of the sloppy world into a clean white area measuring 8 ½ x 11 inches, where it is apprehensible."
I felt an immediate kinship with that passage, and tucked it away. It was a piece of my puzzle, but not the whole thing.
My earliest life as a writer was as a penpal with my grandparents. Since the time I could hold a pencil and form my letters, I’ve written to them almost monthly. As I got older, I amassed more and more faithful penpals. To this day, a letter in the mailbox makes my heart leap. And I never read a letter haphazardly; there is ritual to it. When one arrives, it is saved for quiet moment in a quiet place, and it is read at least three times. I’ve always been able to say things to people in letters that I struggle to say aloud. And no matter what is going on in my life, writing and reading a letter is the ultimate comfort. Clue number two.
Piece three came in my early 20s. I’d been pretty sick for a very long time with three undiagnosed food allergies. And after 15 years, it wasn’t a doctor who finally put me on the path to diagnosis; it was a friend who read a story in a newspaper and said, “This woman sounds like you.” My whole life course changed that day – not because of medical tests and experts – but because of the willingness of a human to share her story. Knowing that the written word could in fact be healing was another thing I tucked away.
The final piece has come to me in the weeks that Melissa and I have been interviewing people for our “American Dream” piece. Recently, I spoke with a man who is an at-home Dad and a volunteer firefighter. When I asked him how he describes his work in a soundbite, he shared great vignettes about the reactions – ranging from condescension and criticism to celebration – that he has gotten over the years to the various jobs he has had. When speaking of the answer he gives to the question now, he said “I read my audience and try to figure out what may start or stop a conversation depending on what I want to do.”
When I heard that, I thought, “Yes, that is exactly what I do.”
I have seen pieces of myself or my family and friends in every single interview I have done. I have also been taken aback by the differences and left with so much to think about on my bus rides home from these interviews. These snippets of conversation like the one above are not Earth shattering, nor are they critical to our life trajectories or to those of the people who will see this play in the fall. But for me, the people we are interviewing are people whom I would never meet under any other circumstance – strangers who are willing to share parts of their lives with us and with you. And for me, that has as much meaning as anything does.
What all of these things have in common – making sense of the world, the comfort of letter writing, being healed by story, meeting and talking with strangers – is connection. I write because sometimes putting thoughts out into the world helps me find the people who have similar experiences. Sometimes it’s a way to find those who really, really disagree with me. I write because in some of the toughest moments of my life, seeing myself in someone else’s story has made me feel less alone. I write because reading and writing have been my greatest teachers. I write because I never get tired of learning about people, and the written word is where I feel most like an explorer. I write because it is my way to connect.
When Melissa and I embarked on our “American Dream” piece, we of course hoped that we will ultimately write an entertaining story. But the thing we hope above all else is that some piece of one of these real stories will connect with a piece of your life, the way they have with ours, whether it’s a chance to see yourself in someone else or to be surprised by something new. We hope that when you sit in the audience, you won’t feel alone in a dark theatre, but connected through shared experience and, of course, through story.
"What do you do?"
How many times have you been asked that question? How many times have you asked it of others? When greeting an old friend, when meeting someone for the first time – it seems to be the go to question when we don’t know what else to say.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this question, but something about it has always bothered me. It seems so…narrow. It is almost always answered with a short, simple response.
"I'm an accountant."
"I'm a lawyer."
"I'm a teacher."
"I'm a waitress."
It starts to feel like all we are. Whenever I hear myself start to say "I'm an administrative assistant", I try to catch myself and edit my response. "I work as an administrative assistant." Somehow tweaking a few words in my response seems like a good place to start. But after that? How do we dig deeper into who we really are, especially with someone we may have just met?
Kate and I started to talk about this with our friends, and it was like we hit a nerve. Everyone had a story to tell – about feeling like their job was all they were and about struggling to find the words to express who they really are. One question that also came up was "If I don't ask people what they do for a living, what other questions could I ask?" In a way, exploring this question is like inventing a new language. If our own circles were so eager to talk about this, we figured others would be too.
At the end of February, we started researching and interviewing people for a play about “The American Dream,” our relationships to our jobs and how it affects the rest of our lives. We’ve spoken to over two dozen people across the country already, and feel very struck by how eager each person has been to try and get past the "What do you do?" question. Each person we've talked to, regardless of their job, has had different ideas about how they'd like to connect with other people in their lives, and many of those ideas are independent from what they do for work. The more people we talk to, the more we hear the desire to break free of our "work identity" and re-imagine the way we connect with the people in our lives. It feels like charting a new course on a map we have always used.
We are still interviewing, still unpacking all the things we are hearing. But we know this: people are ready to continue this conversation about changing how we identify ourselves and how we connect with our community. It's a challenge but it's exciting. Change is in the air. It's time.
Leave a comment below and tell us: What do you say when people ask "What do you do?"