Documentary theatre


Mary Barnes

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

In 1965, Mary Barnes arrives at Kingsley Hall, the first resident of an alternative treatment centre for mental illness founded by the controversial psychotherapist, R. D. Laing. Having undergone shock therapy and insulin injections for her schizophrenia with little result, it seems unlikely that Mary will ever leave institutional care.

But her life changes when she meets Joseph Berke, her therapist. Encouraged to regress to a childlike state, Mary discovers a way through her madness with the paints and crayons given to her by Berke, creating the fantastic canvasses and drawings which would later bring her fame as an artist.

David Edgar’s play is adapted from Mary Barnes: Two Accounts of a Journey Through Madness, written by Mary Barnes and Joseph Berke. Edgar worked closely with both authors during the writing of this uniquely personal piece which challenges traditional assumptions about the reality of living with and treating mental illness.

Mary Barnes received its world premiere in August 1978 at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre Studio, before transferring to the Royal Court Theatre, London.

Once in a While the Odd Thing Happens

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Once in a While the Odd Thing Happens is drawn from the life of Benjamin Britten and informed by many personal interviews with the composer's friends and especially his sister Beth. The play has an austere beauty which serves to reveal the humanity of the composer and affords a glance at the ambition of the man. It explores the conflict between his association with W. H. Auden and his partnership with Peter Pears cuminating in the triumphant première of Peter Grimes in 1945. This is neither 'faction' nor drama documentary but a play which resonates beyond its specific characters.

Once in a While the Odd Thing Happens premièred at the Cottesloe in September 1990, in a production directed by Paul Godfrey.

audio Spill

LA Theatre Works
Type: Audio

In April of 2010, British Petroleum gave orders to speed up production on its colossal drilling rig, the Deepwater Horizon. Despite the objections of many on the rig, safety measures were ignored or overlooked. On April 20th, the Deepwater Horizon exploded. Eleven men paid the ultimate price and countless thousands who call the Gulf Coast home found their lives irrevocably altered. Spill is part of L.A. Theatre Works’ Relativity Series featuring science-themed plays. Major funding for the Relativity Series is provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, to enhance public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. An L.A. Theatre Works full-cast recording, starring Elisa Bocanegra, Gilbert Glenn Brown, Nicholas Hormann, Travis Johns, Jane Kaczmarek, James Morrison, Darren Richardson, Kate Steele, and Mark Jude Sullivan. Production Manager, Niki Hyde. Music Supervisor, Ronn Lipkin. Associate Artistic Director, Anna Lyse Erikson. Editor, Mitchell Lindskoog. Recording Engineer, Sound Designer and Mixer, Mark Holden for The Invisible Studios, West Hollywood.

Terms using ‘documentary’ and ‘drama’ in combination (most of which relate more to the world of television than to the stage) can be confusing. ‘Documentary drama’, describing plays with a close relationship to their factual base, is a twentieth-century extension of historical drama or the pièce à thèse where the factual basis gives the action its credibility. In ‘documentary theatre’, documents themselves are projected into text and performance. Documentary theatre has a declared purpose and an evident factual base. It follows the model pioneered in the 1920s by Erwin Piscator. Non-naturalistic epic theatre techniques are used in documentary theatre to present oppositional critiques of dominant ideologies. Its four major functions are to reassess national/ local histories; to celebrate communities/ marginalized groups and their histories; to investigate important events and issues past and present; and to be openly didactic in its use of information. In documentary theatre, photographs and/ or film project actualities; placards and/ or slides project quotations from source documents; actors and/ or loudspeakers address the audience directly with facts and information; voices of participants in historical events are used on tape/ film. In addition, authentic music and song can add a critique of events, and acting techniques like Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt (Alienation Effect) can enable representation (rather than impersonation) of historical figures to take place. Information becomes the protagonist through a rhetoric of fact (printed documents, statistics, graphs, maps, actuality tape, film and photograph, song), as it did in the Federal Theater’s Living Newspaper. Such theatricalization is the opposite of naturalistic drama, which seeks to mask performance techniques in favour of surface realisms, especially of character. Documentary theatre was sometimes called Theatre of Fact in the 1960s, following Piscator’s Berlin productions of Rolf Hochhuth’s The Representative (1963), Heinar Kipphardt’s The Case of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1964) and Peter Weiss’s The Investigation (1965). Theatre Workshop’s Oh, What a Lovely War! (1963) and Peter Brook’s US (1966) were landmark productions in Britain, where the methodology derived from these plays became briefly a staple in repertory theatre, having been pioneered by Peter Cheeseman at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent. The ‘verbatim play’ was a 1980s variant of the local documentary. Britain’s 7:84 and America’s San Francisco Mime Troupe were notable alternative theatre exponents of documentary theatre, and the British Theatre in Education movement used it extensively as does radical theatre in the Third World.

from Derek Paget, The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).