Commentary:What’s lost in documentary theatre

Strong arguments aside, we should return toharder truths

Illustration by Julia Balakrishnan

It’s a truism that people seek out ideas to confirm their biases. 

Consequently, in an era of fake-news and ‘alternative facts,’ the realm of theatre might seem an unusual place to turn for guidance. 

In a recent article for the Conversation, Dan School of Drama Professor Jenn Stephenson made the argument for documentary theatre in the post-truth era. Documentary theatre refers to plays that are either autobiographical, or draw verbatim from real texts. 

While it may seem odd that truth should find its roots in a medium that typically produces fiction, Stephenson makes the argument that documentary plays teach us the process of truth making. She believes the “quest for authenticity is an impossible dream,” and that the truth lies in the acceptance of our inability to know for sure.  

While Stephenson makes a strong point, she asks mainstream audiences to embrace contemporary anxieties and uncertainties in exchange for experimental theatre.

She cites post-structural theorists who believe that realities aren’t objective but representations of reality.  Feminists, anti-racists, and LGBTQ activists and academics have used these frameworks to create inclusive spaces for identities that deviate from the norm, but there’s no political monopoly on the theory. 

She rightly points out the theory has been used by climate change deniers and other sects of the extreme right. The response, Stephenson argues, isn’t to pursue the truth at all costs, but to embrace the reality that nothing can be known. 

“These feelings of insecurity are not just something to be endured but they should be embraced and fostered,” Stephenson writes. 

However, this embrace of dialogue may be unconvincing for young people striving to address climate change or combat harmful narratives. In documentary theatre, the audience comes face-to-face with the process of deciding reality. By seeing the truth play out on stage, audiences are forced to question what is and isn’t included. Whose voices are heard? Who makes the important decisions? 

The challenge is inevitable confirmation bias, as audiences tend to seek out reassuring narratives over deliberate discomfort. In a post-truth era, we should be working to reclaim hard answers, not send them off. 

Readers can be forgiven for thinking experimental theatre production may have difficulty transferring to wider audiences swept up in harmful narratives. While it may be tempting to dive into ambiguity, a more stable artistic vision might be required for audiences already struggling with a world full of conflicting truths. 

Stephenson writes that it’s doubt that compels people to engage with their own insecurity and to question how reality has come to be constructed. 

She believes that this is achieved through listening to one another and facilitating the sharing of more perspectives. Through strong social connections, people can agree on the processes that construct reality rather than the content of said reality. 

“When conspiracy theories flourish and lies are indifferently accepted, the thread between our lived experiences and our cartography of that world breaks. Returning to the first principles of how ‘reality’ comes to be is a necessary first step,” she writes.  

However, poststructural theory has done little to restrict this growth of conspiracy theories, and the answer of throwing more fuel on the fire may hinder efforts more than help them. 

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