By MARK BLANKENSHIP
It’s easy to forget there are writers behind “documentary theatre.” The scripts for plays like The Laramie Project and Anna Deveare Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles are culled from the transcripts of interviews, meaning every word in the show was actually spoken by a real person. As someone’s actual words spill from the stage, it’s tempting to believe they’re speaking to us directly, with no one mediating what they say.
But even a “documentary” script has been shaped. At some point, an artist decides which portion of an interview we should hear. Responses are placed in a particular order and are edited in a particular way to create a dramatic argument, and often, people’s words mean things they weren’t expecting.
That can be powerful. In the best documentary theatre, artists mold interviews (and sometimes historical documents) into a new form that lets us discover something we wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
However, that process raises sensitive questions for artists: How do you make your theatrical point without ignoring what happened in the real world? How do you honor the real lives you’re portraying without sacrificing your own ability to tell a story?
And how do you proceed if you’re personally involved with what you’re documenting? Playwrights Emily Ackerman and KJ Sanchez are facing that question right now. For their play ReEntry, now playing Off Broadway at Urban Stages, they interviewed dozens of Marines about their experiences returning to civilian life after serving overseas. Their own families got them especially invested in the subject: Between them, they have seven brothers with military experience.
Ackerman says, “We would go to these conferences, and I would go up to a colonel after he’d given a briefing to parents about their kids, and I’d have tears running down my face. I’d say, ‘Thank you so much for saying that, and by the way, I’m working on this thing. Can I interview you?’”
Perhaps unavoidably, these personal connections have affected the material in ReEntry. For one thing, Ackerman and Sanchez, who also directs, say they are not interested in politics. “We really didn’t have a political agenda,” Ackerman explains. “We were very mindful of keeping that out as much as possible because we don’t want to focus on, ‘Why this is wrong’ or ‘Why it’s right.’ We didn’t want to deal with that. Everyone already knows how they feel about it.”
Instead, the pair focuses on a small group of Marines that we follow throughout the show, with the idea that this will help humanize and personalize the abstract concept of “military service.”
Sanchez says, “I want the veterans who come to walk away knowing they’ve been heard. I want the rest of the folks to walk away with and understanding that they don’t have keep veterans at arm’s length. We don’t have to feel sorry for them. We don’t have to criminalize them. We don’t even have to thank them.”
But given their close ties to the military, can Ackerman and Sanchez create a truly objective piece? They wondered the same thing, especially when they were developing an earlier version of ReEntry for a production in New Jersey last year. “The first version of the show was so 'oorah,' we basically wrote a commercial for the Marine Corps,” says Ackerman. “We said, ‘Well, we’ve written a piece of military propaganda.”
For the production at Urban Stages, the pair goes deeper, adding pieces of the interviews in which Marines discuss frustrations, doubts, and dark thoughts. The decision to include these extra layers---and the initial hesitation to do so---underscores just how much a playwright shapes “the truth” in documentary theatre.
“We know that as the playwrights, what we put on stage is what we want people to hear, so we were really concerned about that,” says Ackerman. “We were thinking, ‘Well, if he says that but doesn’t clarify it with this, then maybe the audience will think badly of him.’ And we don’t want that, but we want to represent these people accurately, so we let them say more of the messy stuff they said. The full truth honors them in a more complete way.”
She continues, “We have to trust the audience will understand this complete person. I fell in love with these people, and they said all this stuff to me, so we have to trust that the audience can go on that ride with these people being as complicated as they are. And as positive as they, and as dark as they are. And as complete as a human being is.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor