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Michael Bettencourt
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july 2006

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I recently saw columbinus at the New York Theatre Workshop, a "Living Newspaper"-style examination of the shootings at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.  One of the first things the actors do as they come onstage is to remind the audience (actually, re-remind, since the program had already made this point) that what they are about to see is based on transcripts, interviews, etcetera, etcetera. In other words, it's based on a true story.

And I think: So what?

I think this partly out of a reflex of resistance to being told how I should respond to what I am going to be shown.  Because the phrase "based on a true story" is a protocol about how I should respond -- otherwise, why foreground it?  And an essential element of a response-protocol based on the "authentic" (assuming we know what that word means) is "You cannot disbelieve."  That is, you don't have a choice about how you respond to the story because  it is true, it happened, and your imagination will not be allowed to gainsay or re-draft its reality by saying "but what if....."

But not only does "based on a true story" strait-jacket the imagination, it also lays down a claim that what is true is also, by virtue of its trueness, inherently dramatic.  There is, however, no correlation between a true story and dramatic truth.  The true story of Columbine -- that is, the story laid down according to its facts -- is surely filled with enterprises of great pitch and moment.  And columbinus lays them out by using a structure and approach that employs all sorts of what the reviews call "theatrical devices": streaming video from a hand-held camera, a subtitled audio tape of the 911 call from the school library, choreographed movements based on a popular songs, and so on. 

However, these "devices" are just story-telling aids, variations on the textbook and the talking head.  Their use does not automatically create a dramatic narrative.  And even if they could create real drama, they aren't allowed to because everything happening on the stage is in service to "the true story," which means that the stage-action is pre-determined in its narration and destination, and such predetermination poisons dramatic truth.

A name exists for what columbinus does: documentary theatre.  One book, Documentary Theatre in the United States: An Historical Survey and Analysis of Its Content, Form, and Stagecraft by Gary Fisher Dawson, defines documentary theatre as a "dramatic representation of societal forces using a close reexamination of events, individuals, or situations" and that in America documentary theatre has often been used as "an alternative to conventional journalism." And that's the rub for me, this confusion of mediums: if one wants to do journalism, then do journalism.  If one wants to do documentaries, make a documentary film.  Theatre is not the medium for the documentary/journalistic impulse.

And why not?  The answer to this question takes into account my own evolution as a playwright. I first began writing plays from a documentary impulse.  I agreed with Emma Goldman that modern drama was a powerful vehicle for bringing radical social and political ideas to audiences -- in short, that the playwright acted as an instructor.  Which implied that there are people who need instruction, i.e., the audience.  Which also implied an arrogant assumption on the playwright's part about the audience, i.e., that they were under-informed.

I no longer think like this, or at least not a lot like this.  Because I've come to see that theatre's province, theatre's theatre, so to speak, is actually quite small and specific: it is to examine the state of the human heart under the pressure of knowing that death lurks just around the corner.  And this examination uses an equally small and specific set of tools, actually only one tool: protagonists must fall apart in order to find out what glues their parts together, and the audience must experience this change as a visceral change (i.e., a shift in the viscera) without being lessoned by the playwright as to the change's meaning, purpose, direction, or usefulness.

This doesn't mean that the playwright mimics reality (assuming that we can even define "mimic" and "reality") but shapes it through conflict, reversal, restoration, reoccurrence -- in short, by using all the usual "devices," the playwright creates a staged reality, resembling "real" reality but not its cognate.

Documentary theatre pretends to "stage" its story, but it doesn't, really. The staging is a masque for a lesson, and it's the lesson -- and its attached assumption that knowledge somehow makes people better people -- that matters most to the documentary theatre-maker: "You should know this, for we believe you will be better for knowing it. We believe you have an emptiness, and we are here to fill it."  This is not to say that documentary theatre is a pleasureless grind -- it can be affecting in cognitive and emotional ways.  But in the end, documentary theatre is quite static, the complete opposite of good theatre's being dynamic.

One last point, related to documentary theatre's static nature, and this answers the question (if someone were to ask me this question), "Well, how would you tell this story?"  Documentary theatre, in its lesson-giving to the audience, resists implicating that audience in the moral disasters it seeks to explore and explain.  We learn about them, but we don't become part of the equation that the documentary sets out to clarify why they occur.  Yes, in columbinus, there were nods to the notion that somehow "we" failed the two young butchers, but that was just platitudinizing -- nothing in the performance asked the audience to really believe that, sacrifice themselves to that idea.  In short, the documentary theatre piece really leaves the audience in the same moral and spiritual place in which it entered the theatre, despite the fact that it aims, through its lesson, to get people to amend themselves. But this is as it has to be if you're telling a true story: the strictures of the true story won't allow too much play of the fictive imagination, and without that, there is no imaginative way to pollinate an audience with what it's observing.

What would I do?  First, I'd strip away the Columbine reality completely and simply have two young people who want to murder their mates, existing in some undefined time and undefined place.  Then I would examine the moral lesson that I wouldn't want people to put into practice: that it felt good to do what they did because of the power they had.  I would defend doing this by quoting the playwright Terence: "I am a man; nothing human is alien to me."  And I would also try to tell this story in a way would at least make some in the audience whisper to themselves "I, too, have wished I could feel that same power," to tell this story so that we could hear the contra-dictions in our mind's ears about two simultaneous and overlapping true stories: they are monsters and they are human, they disgust me and they are like me.  No closure, no summation, no release -- just a ponder on the messiness of our moral lives.

Is this what Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris thought about/felt/mused upon?  I don't know, and I don't care because if the facts get in the way of the story, then it's time to jettison the facts in favor of taking a journey through the inconvenient lifescape called the human being.  There are more useful and interesting truths than the facts.

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About This Article

©2006 Michael Bettencourt
©2006 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt has had his plays produced
in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles, among others.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate" and wife, Maria-Beatriz

For more of his commentary and articles, check the




Scene4 Magazine-International Magazine of Performing Arts and Media

july 2006

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