This is one of a series of old essays that I wrote as part of my BA at The University of York, which I am now posting here for posterity:
Telling The Truth: Ethics of Fabulation in Documentary Theatre
“She says, “You…will lie to them.”
And I say, “Yes, Cathy. I’m going to lie to lots of people.”” (Daisey, 2012)
‘Fabulation’ is a word of relatively uncommon usage in everyday English, and I therefore feel compelled to outline my reasons for its use in this essay. The Oxford Dictionary of English defines ‘ to fabulate’ as to “relate invented stories”, as opposed to ‘ to fabricate’, which it describes as to “invent (something) in order to deceive” – the important distinction here being the aspect of intended deceit. In order to avoid the assumption of ulterior motive for any potential untruths in a theatrical context, I will thus be avoiding the word ‘fabrication’, and have instead opted to use the somewhat rarer word ‘fabulation’.
In order to explore untruth in Documentary Theatre, we must also first establish that there are significant differences in opinion to what necessarily constitutes ‘truth’ in Theatre at all:
“I would say that it depends on what is meant by being truthful: literal truth or truth in spirit?” – Robin Soans (cited in Hammond and Steward, 2008, p41)
In this essay, I will explore the vast differences in approaches to the presentation of, and opinions on the concept of ‘truth’ in contemporary theatre through the lens of two of the most influential Documentary plays in recent years: The Laramie Project and The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs in order to demonstrate that fabulation is occasionally acceptable in Documentary Theatre.
I. Defining ‘Documentary Theatre’
‘Documentary Theatre’ is a notoriously difficult term to define, at least in part due to its practitioners displaying an exceedingly diverse range of approaches to it. Many might consider it to be an overarching term, encapsulating more specific terms such as ‘Verbatim Theatre’ as a sub-genre.
In Verbatim: Staging Memory and Community, Caroline Wake makes the distinction between Documentary and Verbatim, setting them both as sub-genres next to each other on the spectrum of ‘Reality Theatre’. In this definition, ‘Verbatim Theatre’ is comprised of material gained from interviews, whereas ‘Documentary Theatre’ uses a variety of sources. This definition appears to be backed up by Peter Weiss’ often-cited “Fourteen Propositions for a Documentary Theatre”:
“The documentary theatre is a theatre of factual reports. Minutes of proceedings, files, letters, statistical tables, stock-exchange communiqués, presentations of balance sheets of banks and industrial undertakings, official commentaries, speeches, interviews, statements by well-known personalities, press, radio, photo, or film reporting of events and all the other media bear witness to the present and form the basis of the production..“ (Favorini, 1995, p139)
In reality, I would argue that this distinction does not preclude a definition of Documentary Theatre as an umbrella term which includes Verbatim – if interviews are a possible source for Documentary, and Verbatim is theatre comprised of interviews, then Verbatim is better defined as just a tool to be used the creation of Documentary Theatre, rather than a genre in itself. Therefore, in this paper, I will be using these definitions of ‘Documentary Theatre’ being theatre created from real-life sources, and ‘Verbatim’ being a tool used to present interviews, which are, in turn, a type of source.
II. “Truth”: The Laramie Project
“Just deal with what is true. You know what is true. You need to do your best to say it correct.” (Kaufman, M. et al, 2014, p63)
The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman and Members of the Tectonic Theatre Company was first performed at the Ricketson Theatre, Denver, 26th February 2000 and shows the effect on, and opinions of the community in Laramie, Wyoming, after the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man.
The play itself could be described as a collage of material from interviews of the townsfolk, personal recounting from the actors’ experiences and court transcripts collected and collated over a period of 2 years. This source material was edited into series of intercut monologues and presented without invention, in what Variety describes as “The unfailing eloquence of plain-spoken words” (Young, 2000))
However, one major issue with the use of verbatim as a tool in Documentary Theatre, is that there is no guarantee that what is being said be the interviewees is in fact ‘the truth’. Holding each individual source to account for what they claim is therefore of utmost importance, and Tectonic Theatre Company are no strangers to this concept
Their earlier play, Gross Indecency holds the source material to account by ‘citing’ everything, and therefore absolves the theatre-makers from blame for the words of an individual they present on stage. This is achieved by continually presenting the exact material a section is developed from to the audience – for example, by holding a book that dialogue s taken from up so the audience can see it, and stating “from this book”.
As Rich Brown explains, this juxtaposition of sources creates debate and encourages the audience to construct their own truth from the evidence being presented to them, rather than prescribing one:
“The actors invite the spectators to construct Wilde’s story by presenting them with carefully selected yet conflicting accounts.” (Brown, 2005)
Similarly, a variety of sources are used, placing material that corroborates, or refutes next to each other, encouraging debate and calling integrity of each one into question, and whilst Gross Indecency cited the books each section was taken from, The Laramie Project includes a narrator character that names and identifies the other characters that appear on stage. This slight adaptation of the ‘citation’ technique provides the makers of The Laramie Project with the ability to absolve themselves of blame for the things said onstage, and any untruths therein, instead passing it straight on to the real people that originally said them, much like in Gross Indecency. Unlike Gross Indecency, however, where those that the blame it attributed to are dead, in The Laramie Project they are not, and any misrepresentation of them through editing could lead to a defamation lawsuit.
In WHAT’S UP, DOC? The Ethics of Fact and Fabulation in Documentary Performance: A Forum, Emily Mann uses the example of her own play to show the effect that the ordering of scenes can have on the audience’s interpretation of what they see and hear:
“When the white supremacist David Duke spoke to me for my Greensboro play [Greensboro: A Requiem] … he approved how I took our two-hour conversation and put it down to a five-minute speech… . And yet I put him in a position in the play where he was really shown off to be the lunatic that he is. But it was his approved speech. A lot of what you do when you work in this form is the order in which you place things.” (cited in Soloski, 2013)
In order to mitigate the potential harm from misrepresentation in this way, The Laramie Project uses another technique that Gross Indecency does not. It includes the actors themselves as characters in the play and uses these to actively debate their role as theatre makers to be as truthful as possible, as can be perhaps most clearly seen in the moment ‘Two Queers and A Catholic Priest‘:
”I will trust you people that if you write a play of this, that you (pause) say it right, say it correct. I think you have a responsibility to do that.” (Kaufman, M. et al., 2014, p64)
This inclusion of these actor-characters and the theme of them debating their duty as theatre makers effectively lays bare the making of the play, holding the cutting, re-ordering and structural choices open to criticism, and showing their own fallibility. In effect, it demonstrates to the audience, that the play may, intentionally or not, make a certain character appear a certain way because of when their words appear in the text, and what other characters their words are juxtaposed with. This highlights for the audience the inherent subjectivity in the play – despite the apparent balance from the wide range of sources – and that The Laramie Project is therefore merely an approximation of the truth.
However, that is not to say that these techniques were necessarily completely effective, or indeed are above criticism. Specifically, the use of actors as characters has garnered disapproval as it has been seen as somewhat narcissistic – describing it as a form of “Personality Journalism” (Brown and Wake, 2010, p28), and the actors as “self-aggrandizing” , (Brown and Wake, 2010, p26) Similarly, the use of this technique has been seen to cause issues in subsequent productions of The Laramie Project. For example, in the 2001 Company B production in Sydney, the show was criticised for it making the audience ‘Aware [they] are watching actors play actors’. (Brown and Wake, 2010, p30)
Perhaps, then, using actors as characters becomes less effective when these characters are not played by the same actors they are developed from. Potentially, we must then draw a distinction between ‘Laramie the project’ – a production borne out of the research and performance of actors working journalistically within a community, and ‘Laramie the play’ – a text that is nothing more than a transcript of that production. This distinction appears to be backed up by the criticism of Company B’s production as being “‘weakened’ by the fact its ‘development ha[d] already been concluded’” (Brown and Wake, 2010, p30). Additionally, it could be argued that by adding another degree of separation through having a new cast playing the actors, one adds another layer of subjectivity to the performance, and thus, without calling attention to this, cannot be said to be fully disclosing its level of truthfulness.
III. “Fabulation”: The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.
The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs was first performed 19th July 2010, at the Woolley Mammoth Theatre, Washington D.C and comprises of monologuist Mike Daisey recounting his experiences on his trip to a Foxconn – a supplier to Apple – factory in Shenzhen, China. The play, in which Daisey describes the appalling working conditions of the factory workers, and doubles as an emotive story and a call to arms, encouraging the audiences to pressure Apple to use its sway in the industry to make improvements.
Response to the play was initially good, but after performing an extract from the play on NPR’s journalistic podcast This American Life in 2012, doubt began to be cast on some of the things that Daisey claims in the play to have personally witnessed. As a result, This American Life issued a special ‘retraction’ episode where, in interviews with Daisey and his interpreter on the trip to Shenzhen, it was discovered that significant portions of the play had been embellished, or imported from other people’s experiences or news stories into his own narrative, and had not, in fact, actually happened to Daisey, as he claimed.
In accordance with Peter Weiss’ definition, The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs could be argued to be Documentary Theatre, as it uses a number of sources, and therefore, whilst not necessarily portraying a ‘literal truth’, does use evidence to provide a truth of sorts. Indeed, Daisey harkens to this himself in his initial defence of the piece:
“I stand by my work… . It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity.” (cited in Soloski, 2013)
A number of pieces of ‘Documentary Theatre’, could be seen to fabulate in a similar way – Gregory Burke’s Black Watch, for example, invents dialogue in flashback scenes, and yet has not drawn the same level of criticism. We must therefore ask what it is about The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs that makes it different, and why the fabulation within it is somehow ‘worse’, or more worthy of criticism.
It was not until the broadcast in This American Life that the criticism of the play’s fabulated sections really began to take hold, which seems to imply that the grievance is more to do with its inclusion in a journalistic program; he was “posing as a journalist when in fact he was a storyteller, and then continuing to sustain this fiction after he was offstage.” (Steen, 2014)
However, the criticism did not stop at the This American Life episode, instead the play itself – in a theatrical context – was also being subjected to the same reproval, saying that it was misleading audiences into the belief that was what being said was literally true. Shannon Steen explains that “for many people who are not theatre enthusiasts, Agony is indissociable from the TAL episode that featured it” (Steen, 2014) which, when we consider that much of the criticism came from technology journalists who had seen the play in the wake of the This American Life podcast, and the death of the titular character in 2011, goes some of the way to clarify why audiences and journalists rejected the piece wholesale.
This, however, can only be considered part of the explanation, as many claim that they believed the play to be being literally truthful, even prior to the segments NPR feature. Ira Glass, the presenter of This American Life demonstrates this as he explains to Daisey in the ’Retraction’ follow-up episode:
“I think you’re kidding yourself in the way that normal people who go to see a person talk – people take it as a literal truth. I thought that the story was literally true seeing it in the theater. Brian, who’s seen other shows of yours, thought all of them were true. I saw your nuclear show, I thought that was completely true. I thought it was true because you were on stage saying ‘this happened to me.’ I took you at your word. “ (NPR, 2012)
Clearly, then, there is an issue to be explored with Daisey’s use of the theatrical form itself.
Lisa Kron argues that the issue with The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is its reliance on the medium of a monologue, with Mike Daisey taking on the role of a story-teller:
“When a piece conflates stories about the world with theatrical representations of the world, problems arise. We have an implicit understanding of the rules of engagement when listening to a storyteller (or a reporter). But the metaphorizing glow of a theater stage lifts the speaker slightly above that set of rules. “ (Soloski 2013)
Ron seems to say that the sole use of the medium of story-telling is not in itself ‘theatrical’ enough to place the words being said in a metaphorical context and thus absolve them of the requirement to be literally true. However, it could be argued in response that there are plenty of occasions that story-telling is actually congruent with fabulation, such as in the retelling of fairy tales. I would therefore attest that to blame audiences thinking that the play is literally true in its entirety to the use of story-telling as a medium is simplifying the problem somewhat.
An additional factor in the confusion could be the way that it was labelled at the theatre in its initial run. Rather than being branded as ‘Documentary Theatre’, the play was instead referred to as ‘Non-Fiction Theatre’. Whilst there at first may not seem to be too much of difference between these two terms, one must consider that the phrase ‘non-fiction’ actively implies an avoidance of invention. Therefore, one could see the distinction between these terms as being that ‘Documentary Theatre’ is theatre that tells a real story, but does not by definition preclude anything fictionalised, whereas ’Non-fiction Theatre’ implies that it contains absolutely no fiction whatsoever. In essence, the use of this label amounted to the play claiming an one-hundred percent adherence to literal truth and veracity. As Hammond and Steward note:
“The claim to veracity on the part of the theatre maker, however hazy or implicit, changes everything. Immediately, we approach the play not just as a play but also as an accurate source of information. We trust and expect that we are not being lied to. When this claim is made, theatre and journalism overlap and like a journalist, the dramatist must abide by some sort of ethical code if their work is to be taken seriously. “(Hammond and Steward, 2008, p10)
Ultimately, despite maintaining the credibility of his work, Daisey issued this apology:
““And I would like to apologize to my colleagues in the theater, especially those who work in nonfiction and documentary fields… . If I have made your path more difficult, or the truth of your work harder for audiences to discern, I am sorry.” “ (Soloski, 2013)
However, this was not for want of critics who maintained that he was correct in his actions. Taylor Mac argues that the audience’s expectations of truth is not as literal as others assume, instead he says of some of the claims Mike Daisey makes in the play:
“That’s awesome if he made that up […] I feel that there is a contract that you have with your audience, and the contract actually is not what everyone is assuming it is, about ethics and truth, but actually that you will do whatever you can, whatever your power is, to make their experience feel valid, and to inspire them to then dream the conversation forward and the culture forward.” (Feldman, 2015)
Likewise, another contemporary posits that Daisey was not even wrong in taking the play outside the theatrical medium – “What makes you feel like you’re having an impact on the world more than it moving beyond the theater?” (Feldman, 2015)
Daisy claims that his intention in fabulating was to create interest and an emotional connection with his audience in order to spur them on to action. Ira Glass, from This American Life maintains that:
“Right but you’re saying that the only way you can get through emotionally to people is to mess around with the facts, but that isn’t so. “ (NPR, 2012)
However, regardless of whether it could have been done another way, it is certainly true that The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs has had a significant impact on the world outside the theatre. Since the play’s first performance, and as a result of the interest in working conditions it provoked, Apple has submitted itself to audits from the Fair Labor Association, and generally committed to a more open stance on its Supplier Responsibility Policies. This is a move which will have no-doubt improved working conditions for many labourers in factories such as the one in Shenzhen, and it could therefore be argued that this result was worth the lesser evil of misleading the public – in this case, the greater of the two evils would be failing to make a real difference. As Joshua Toploski puts it: “What I’m saying is that sad songs have a way of sticking with us long after we’ve heard them — and Daisey found a way to tell the sad, human part of this story. To make it catchy enough to stick, even if it was a lie.” (Topolski, 2015)
Nevertheless, Daisey eventually made significant changes to the piece, including the removal of some of the most controversial fabulated material, for its tour in 2012. These changes also made a point of highlighting his position as an unreliable narrator:
“”I am a noted fabulist,“ Daisey said. ”Perhaps none of this is true. Wouldn’t that be comforting?“ ”You don’t have to believe me. You never did.”” (Pegoraro, 2012)
Additionally, Daisey published the original draft of his play on his blog, royalty-free, to encourage as many productions as possible, and it has gone on to be an incredible popular play for fringe theatre companies. Interestingly, these productions have not been subject to the same criticism as the original – which appears.
“if you saw some college student in a college town, saying, “I went to China and I met this person,” wouldn’t you know that it was a play? In a way that you don’t when Mike Daisey himself is delivering it? And is that a factor in this conversation?” (Feldman, 2015)”
Much like The Laramie Project, these second-hand performances provide a degree of separation from the words being said. In this case, however, unlike in The Laramie Project, it actually highlights the theatricality of the piece, and the fabulation is no longer taken as gospel, making it much less controversial in terms of the ethics of telling the truth.
Fabulation in Documentary Theatre is undoubtedly an ethical minefield, through which, one must carefully avoid to mislead your audience into belief that what they are seeing can claim total veracity. In this way, ensuring ethical fabulation and slight mistruth in Documentary Theatre relies on an honesty about the fallibility of the theatre makers presenting it – such as in The Laramie Project, where choice of order and sections to include could be said to not be telling the entire truth, and thus Tectonic Theatre Company chose to include themselves and their process on stage to be a target for criticism. It can also be seen in the revised version of The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs with Mike Daisey highlighting his own position as an unreliable narrator, again bringing the play itself, and not just the things being discussed in it, into debate.
Perhaps the best way to sum up, is to leave the final word to Oskar Eutis, artistic director of The Public Theatre at Astor Place. Speaking at the ‘Feldman, 2015’ forum, convened during the media frenzy surrounding the Mike Daisey scandal, he issued this statement of apology for failing to adequately label the show:
“Every performance creates a contract, implied or explicit, between the stage and the audience. That contract directs how the audience should view the performance, what the rules of engagement are. It covers everything from the physical relationship between actors and audience to the border between fiction and fact contained in the performance. Our job as a theater is to create that contract anew with every performance, and then to fulfill it. We did not do that with The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. We would not have called it nonfiction had we known that incidents described in the piece were fabricated. We didn’t know, and the result was that our audience was misled. The piece had a powerful, positive impact on the world, and we are proud of that. But that doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility of honoring our contract with our audience. As artists, we know that truths do not always hinge on facts. However, when we present pieces whose power depends on their claim to authenticity, we must hold ourselves to a different and higher standard of accuracy. We must ascertain, to the best of our ability, that the facts presented in the piece are, in fact, facts. We will do so in the future.” (in Feldman, 2015)
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