Documenting Without Borders

by Paul Diem and Alix Fenhagen

in National Conference

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.) 

In March of 2014 we traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria for Single Carrot Theatre’s latest project in an ongoing collaboration with 36 Monkeys, a Bulgarian organization for contemporary alternative art and culture.  Previous phases of this exchange had taken place in both Sofia and Baltimore and had involved sharing ideas, exercises, and collaborating on joint performances. This project took on a new focus as we endeavored to create a protocol for using documentary theatre practices to engage with our community and break down the borders created between performer and participant and between theatre and community.

Embracing a perspective of cultural democracy demands that we consider that theatre may be for, of and by the people, and that each of these can mean a very different thing on its own and in combination. People in this case refers to members of the community and in most cases the base of our audiences.  As professional theatre companies hoping to encourage audience investment, to build community, and to serve as a platform for the public, we must navigate to what extent we are able to embrace this bold endeavor, while remaining true to our missions, aesthetics and vision. Documentary theatre provides a channel through which to embody these values.

Through the course of our five-day workshop, we compiled the following list of key components of documentary theatre:

Documentary theatre:

  • includes documents.
  • is based on research and is more ethical when the creator’s opinion going into the research is allowed to be swayed by the research.
  • is supported by expert opinions.
  • encompasses conflict between at least two sides, which may be between the audience and the document, the performers, different sides of the audience, the performer and the document, or other conflicting sides.
  • offers the audience freedom to choose to make a decision.
  • concerns the society or part of the society in some way.
  • intends to challenge the audience to make the decision in real life, engaging the audience in the topic in their real lives.

Documentary theatre often springs from issues facing the surrounding community.  At the very least, the subject matter needs to concern the society or part of the society that makes up the audience. If the relevance is adjacent, in the sense of being a topic of interest or of some familiarity to the audience, the documentary theatre piece may correspond to theater for the people.

The role the audience and community can play in a play’s development may vary, however, if the topic being explored is more directly connected to them. From providing source material in the form of interviews, documents, and stories to participating in the development and even performance of the show as actors, movers, and musicians or in video or recorded footage, these members of the community may become a part of co-developing documentary theatre of the people and even by the people.  This approach can reexamine and recontextualize the traditional line drawn between the producers and performers of a play and the audience.

Even if the production decides to use professional actors in lieu of “real people,” the audience members play a very active role in this sort of theatre.  They may become a side or multiple sides of the conflict. Documentary theatre ultimately must challenge the audience to make a decision in regard to the issue explored in the play, a decision that goes beyond the walls of the theatre and the seat they occupy during the performance.

The international collaboration through which we developed these best practices was essential to the outcome.  We worked to break down our own barriers of language, culture, and what we found important in order to create what we hope will be a manner to actively explore breaking down other borders between spectators and performers.  The collaboration and border-crossing involved enriched both the process and product of developing the protocol. The different cultural values we brought to the table in terms of what makes something “true” or “valid” and how official recognition of a document cements its validity enlivened the discussion and challenged us to dig deeper.  Had this protocol been created in a cultural vacuum, the ability to consider multiple perspectives would not have been considered as fully or as integral to the process.  Exploring documentary theatre through this American/Bulgarian exchange confirmed that openly delving into differing points of view with different values is an essential part of any attempt to break down barriers in an ethical and constructive way.

Both Single Carrot and 36 Monkeys have designs to use this protocol in future productions as a way to engage specific communities in our regions.  Both companies have expressed interest in working with the refugee communities in each region and using the protocol determined across borders to aid in breaking down the borders created between audience and performer and our theatres and the surrounding community.


PaulPaul Diem is an Ensemble Member at Single Carrot Theatre and a fiercely proud native of Baltimore. He did his undergraduate acting training at Towson University and his graduate theatre work at California State University in Los Angeles. Prior to his work with Single Carrot he co-founded Baltimore’s Company Thirteen, and worked with the Rachel Rosenthal Company in Los Angeles. He is an actor, playwright, director, and theatre educator. He finds the most important things in life to be family, art and community, and finds that each necessitates the other.

AlixAlix Fenhagen is an Ensemble Member of Single Carrot Theatre, where she acts, writes, directs and serves as an administrative consultant. Before moving to Baltimore, she devised and collaborated with New York’s Subjective Theatre Company CoLab. Alix trained at École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, is a graduate of Northwestern University and has recently completed a Masters in Arts Administration at Goucher College.