Behind the Words: The Art of Documentary and Verbatim Theatre

Author: Colette Keen

Keen, Colette, 2017 Behind the Words: The Art of Documentary and Verbatim Theatre, Flinders University, School of Humanities and Creative Arts

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Documentary Theatre, and its more recent iteration, Verbatim Theatre, has been a vital theatre form in the West since the early 20th Century, notable for its preoccupation with socio-political issues and its reliance on the actual words of those who witnessed or participated in a particular event or phenomenon. This thesis examines what puts the ‘art’ into Documentary and Verbatim Theatre, while considering its relationship with and roots in journalism. By exploring the influences on practitioners and how these impact their work, the question asked is: What position does the writer take in terms of placing themselves in the text and how does this influence the work? To inform this, it is asked: Is the writer speaking for or with the story-owners. Related questions include: To what extent does the writer have an outsider/insider positionality; what is the intersectionality of the writer with the subject; and what role does empathy play in the creation of such work? This critical reflection provides practitioners, participants, and the audience of Documentary and Verbatim Theatre with new ways of engaging with this arts practice.

To establish the form’s development from journalism to art, the historical influence of journalism is explored. Ethnographic methodology is also employed to analyse the subject positions and working methodologies of two of the great practitioners of this form, Anna Deavere Smith and Moisés Kaufman. Auto-ethnographic techniques are also utilised, drawing from the experience of working as personal assistant to Smith and participating in Kaufman’s professional training in Moment Work.

The practice component of the dissertation is the full-length Documentary Verbatim Theatre script, The Death of Kings (Keen, 2016). This work has been created as an example of a writer speaking with the story-owners and positioning themselves in the audience. The play focuses on the experiences of self-identified white gay men in Sydney, Australia and the response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic by the gay community.

The result of this research is to offer an analytical framework for mapping out the influences on the writers of Documentary or Verbatim Theatre, demonstrating how they create an artistic element not found in documentary and journalism practice. By understanding how Documentary and Verbatim Theatre go beyond journalism, we are given the opportunity to better appreciate and more deeply query the nature of the truth being presented and the art inflecting and underpinning the stories told by the creators of these works.

Keywords: theatre, documentary, verbatim, journalism, ethnodrama, ethnographic, auto-ethnographic, arts practice based research, positionality, intertextuality, empathy, multiple narratives, storyteller, story-owner, bearing witness, HIV/AIDS.

Subject: Humanities thesis, Creative Arts thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2017
School: School of Humanities and Creative Arts
Supervisor: William Peterson