Documentary Theatre: About Aesthetics and Politics. Interview with Martha Bouziouri

by Savas Patsalidis*

. . . It is only when we exit the comfort of approval and embrace the risk of the “dangerous” recipient that real impact is achieved

Martha Bouziouri
Martha Bouziouri. Photo: Thomas Arsenis

Martha Bouziouri is a documentary theatre maker and social anthropologist with a multidisciplinary background. She is also the co-founder of the production company PLAYS2PLACE and the artistic director of the newly founded International Network of Documentary Theatre (INDT), the first research, artistic exchange and promotion network for contemporary documentary theatre across borders.

Bouziouri graduated from the Higher School of Dramatic Art of the Greek Art Theatre Karolos Koun. She received her BA from the Department of Communication and Media Studies (University of Athens), followed by an MA in Communication and Cultural Studies. Her PhD thesis in Social Anthropology (Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences), titled “Theatre Makers with a Migrant Background: Representations of Identity and Artistic Expression in Contemporary Greek Theatre,” will be submitted in 2021.

Bouziouri’s work as a director, playwright, dramaturge and educator has been presented in Greek and international theatre festivals and institutions (Athens and Epidaurus Festival, Dimitria Festival, Greek National Theatre, Onassis Youth Festival, Athens Biennale, Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, Chantiers d’Europe – Théâtre de la Ville, Warsaw Biennale, Warsaw Museum of Modern Art, Wiesbaden Biennale, Spielart Festival, the American University of Beirut, Festival of New Dramaturgies, Razem Pamoja Foundation and more).

In 2018, she designed the documentary theatre workshop series “From Field to Stage/ Dramaturgies of the Other,” which was commissioned by Warsaw Biennale, Thessaloniki Documentary Festival and the Hellenic Theatre/Drama and Education Network, among others. The workshop draws on her approach to documentary theatre, which is informed by the ethics, research tools and narrative methods of ethnography.

Bouziouri is a member of Directors Lab Mediterranean (Lincoln Center Theatre Directors Lab, N.Y.), Cultural Innovators Network, Tandem/Shaml Cultural Exchange Program and Robert Bosch Alumni Network. In 2019, she realized a short-term artistic residency at CENTQUATRE Paris, and in 2020 she was admitted as an artist in residence at the Cité Internationale des Arts, where she is currently developing an international documentary theatre trilogy on radicalisation and terrorism.

Amarynthos, Athens and Epidaurus Festival 2018. Photo: Elina Giounanli

Let us talk a bit about your involvement with documentary theatre. How did it all start? What tempted you to turn to this kind of performance?

My engagement with documentary theatre grew organically over time. My first influences derived from cinema; documentary filmmaking has always fascinated me—both the journey of its creation and potential impact on the real world. Our first theatre productions with my company, PLAYS2PLACE, were all based on real life stories, infused with cinematic elements:  plays such as Adam Peck’s Bonnie and Clyde, on the last hours of the infamous couple, or Biljana Srbljanovic’s Family Stories, on the experience of war in the former Yugoslavia.

Then, ethnography came along, and everything fell into place. My encounter with social anthropology revealed a fascinating space for creative intersection with documentary theatre, as regards shared ethics, research methods and unconventional narrative tools.

At the core of my work lies the truth of each person (not the facts or the quest for a singular truth), the desire to “make space” to question our convictions and ultimately welcome the other through reflecting on ourselves.

I believe theatre has more power when the political emerges through the human-e and the cracks opened by subjective memory and experience.

Amarynthos, Athens and Epidaurus Festival 2018. Photo: Elina Giounanli

You more or less answered what I had in mind to ask you now. However, I think we can still talk a little bit more about it. There is a whole debate about the aesthetics of documentary theatre; a debate that raises numerous issues. That said, I would like to hear how you understand documentary theatre?

Documentary theatre usually starts from a “blank page” and draws on real events or issues, aiming at a reflective revisit of the past or a critical negotiation of the present. The creative, open ended journey of its making includes an extensive period of research and often involves real people (beyond the artistic community), who are directly or indirectly connected, experientially or cognitively, with its subject matter.

In my opinion, documentary theatre is more of a way of perceiving artistic creation in relation to the context in which it is born and matures, and its socio-political imprint, and less of a distinct genre to be demarcated. I think it is a deeply popular and inclusive theatre, for it converses with the real world within and beyond the stage.

Making of DOME EXPERIENCE-Traces, Athens Biennale-Dome Event 2016

It is by now a cliché, but I think it relates to our conversation. We live in the age of mediation and simulation, and if the aim of documentary theatre is to go past the mediated and reach the unmediated, the “real,” how do you explain your role as the final composer of the event? Don’t you feel that you are also a “myth maker”?

Absolutely. At the end of the day, our job is to narrate a story—a myth—in the most interesting, engaging and impactful way possible.

The world out there is our fuel, but if you think about it, what we bring on stage is a filtered, layered, partial and, hopefully, less represented/saturated version of the real. We reach out to certain people (who, in return, choose what to share with us), then we decide what, from all of the available material, we want to keep, edit, re-frame and place in a dramatic sequence. That process creates a new meaning, which makes documentary theatre a work of fiction as well.

DOME EXPERIENCE-Traces, Athens Biennale-Dome Event 2016. Photo: Elina Giounanli

Related to what I have just asked you: why is the “truth” of documentary theatre more “true’ than the “truth” of any theatrical illusion? To generalize a little: if we accept the idea that illusion in all its manifestations is what makes reality, is there any kind of performative expression that can exist outside and/or beyond illusion? Would you accept Brecht’s idea that, by deconstructing the illusion of the stage, one could reach the real?

In a documentary theatre performance, the spectators enter the room knowing that the story they are about to watch has happened somewhere out there and has affected real people in real circumstances. As the story unfolds, the stiff consciousness of reality inevitably dissolves into the charms of the artistic convention; no matter the hard evidence or the presence of experts on stage, for x minutes, we live in the illusion of a shared theatrical experience. In this emotional and intellectual roller coaster between reality and illusion, lies, in my opinion, the transformative power of documentary theatre.

Now, about Brecht’s concept, I realize that I, too, attempt to deconstruct the illusion, yet not by creating distance (alienation), but rather the opposite: by opening up a space for intimacy and vulnerability.

How do you do that?

In my works, I often bring fragments of the creative process to the fore—a sort of “behind the scenes” exposure—evidently influenced by the ongoing quest of anthropology to reflect on its own conditions of knowledge production.

This is my understanding of “reaching the real,” and it lies in the sharing of a vulnerable process filled with the encounters, challenges, memories and emotions entailed in a journey that defines the character of our artistic output. We are not grand tellers that own the truth.

We are just telling stories of others that embody ourselves, that force us to escape our comfort zones and move us in unpredicted ways. Stories that find their way onto the stage only because other people found the courage to enter intimate, difficult and often traumatic territories.

Case Farmakonisi or the Right of Water, Athens and Epidaurus Festival 2015. Photo: Thomas Daskalakis

What do you think makes this kind of spectacle/event a more effective medium of communication? Or, let me rephrase: if we accept what statistics tells us—that the audience for this kind of drama is very small and usually made up of people coming from within theatre itself—what, then, is its general impact? What is its political effect? As an artist, what are your primary concerns: Political activism? Social change?

Unfortunately, the statistics are right. Yet, documentary theatre grants us a unique opportunity: to expand the concept of the audience, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Due to its nature (topics that touch upon our shared realities and inclusion of people beyond the artistic community in the creative process), it can become an essentially popular theatre that attracts people with no prior interest in theatre whatsoever.

For me, it is paramount to escape the safe space of like-minded people who sympathize with our causes, who follow and endorse our work, and to expose it, instead, to people of different ideologies, cultural backgrounds and social statuses. It is only when we exit the comfort of approval and embrace the risk of the “dangerous” recipient that real impact is achieved. Otherwise, we will keep telling unpleasant stories to pleasant ears.  

Case Farmakonisi or the Right of Water teaser, Athens and Epidaurus Festival 2015

Documentary theatre usually flourishes at moments of social unrest. I can think right now of the aftermath of the October Revolution, the Great Depression in the US, the Wall Street crash, the Iraq War, September 11 and the anti-terrorist campaign that followed, and more recently the economic crisis in Greece.  In most cases, aesthetics is subordinated to the political agenda of the project. I understand that. It makes sense. At the same time, however, I wonder what is left behind for future generations when the historical moment that has inspired it is gone and forgotten.

Well, I guess it is our responsibility to create a legacy to be remembered for both its political and aesthetical imprint. This is why I have always found the “content versus form”/“message versus aesthetics” conflict to be a false dichotomy. We produce art, not a political essay or an investigative article. In the words of Johnny Saldaña, “the purpose of this kind of theatre is to progressively advance . . .  the broader communities they involve, to new and richer domains of social and artistic meaning. Both the social and artistic are necessary.”[[1]]

Still from the documentary theatre workshop From Film to Theatre Documentary, Thessaloniki Film Festival 2019. Photo: Paraskevi Lypimenou

Do you know any documentary projects in Greece or elsewhere that have survived the test of time? As a maker of live drama, do you think that what really matters in a documentary theatre project is how it is received the moment in which it is presented, rather than its enduring legacy?

What comes to mind is the U.S.-made Laramie Project, which is the first (perhaps the only) example of such a production that survived time and space; it is currently being restaged by new creative teams across the world, who stick to the original script. What happens to all these “dramaturgies of the real” after their limited period of staging is an ontological, political and artistic question.

In my opinion, the vast majority of documentary theatre does not vanish because it has become outdated; from Aeschylus’s Persian Wars to Arthur Miller’s multiracial backdrop of America, the history of theatre is culturally and spatiotemporally defined. The real issue for documentary theatre is that it involves an inherently intimate, collectively fueled process of making. This process often engages what I prefer to call “experiential performers” (real people or professional actors that enact themselves); a fact that makes its original creators reluctant to give it away and discourages prospective inheritors to adopt it. However, the longevity of our work through repetition should not be our sole purpose.

Can you please be more explicit?

The purpose of achieving longevity means that documentary theatre plays are recognized as an equal force within contemporary dramaturgy. It means that their scripts and rich supporting material become accessible to students, scholars, fellow artists, audiences, et cetera. It also means that their topics, methods and formats are inspiring the emergence of new pedagogical tools offstage or new dramaturgies of the real on stage. Ultimately, it means that their trace continues to stimulate people and help to move humanity forward. 

Lecture performance, output of the documentary theatre workshop From Field to Stage/ Dramaturgies of the Other, Warsaw Biennale, Warsaw Museum of Modern Art 2018. Photo: Martha Bouziouri

You are based, mainly, in Greece. What is the situation of documentary theatre in the country? Is there enough of an audience to keep it alive?

Dramaturgies of the real have been blossoming for over a decade in Greece, confirming Alan Filewood’s observation that “where documentary theatre has developed as a constant convention, this has been a result of a crisis in the culture where it is created.”[2] Amidst multiple crises—humanitarian, financial, environmental—a new generation of theatre makers, each in their own way, is putting the focus on topical, pressing issues of shared concern.

As for the audience, it is not a static entity. It shrinks or expands, according to the stimuli it receives. I am positive that documentary theatre can—and must—identify and engage a bigger community (instead of the limited audience of theatregoers); this is among the top priorities of our newly founded International Network of Documentary Theatre: to establish a shared space for communication and exchange within and beyond the artistic community, and ultimately within and beyond the stage.

Green Line, Onassis Youth Festival 2019

What about State support?

State support for contemporary theatre and the arts at large is poor anyway. This reality makes the development and realization of documentary theatre works even more difficult, if we take into account the significant time and resources required before we even begin to rehearse in the traditional way. Limited funding for productions and scarce platforms for visibility aside, there is no provision for the support of the most decisive part of the creative process, namely, research. The necessity of research should be recognized and supported, irrespective of the artistic product.

Research footage from La cité des enfants perdus, a documentary theatre project about radicalized youngsters in France and Belgium (in development)

Do you see any future for documentary theatre in Greece and elsewhere?

I do. I have been witnessing all this accumulating creative energy over the last years, in Greece and abroad. And it is important to point out that, apart from the German-speaking scene, which continues to supply documentary theatre with new narratives, we should turn our attention to less familiar or less represented dramaturgies, outside the western context as well. I will use a familiar example: while working in the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region, I witnessed diverse manifestations of dramaturgies of the real, namely in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The same is true for our neighboring Turkey or distant Latin America. Why not expose ourselves to the realities of artists living and working in cultural environments beyond our reach? Why not invest in the connectivity that the twenty-first century has granted us, along with its multiple stakes?

How do you invest?

In this line of thought, we are developing “Meet the Artist – Online Edition”—an upcoming initiative of the International Network of Documentary Theatre in the face of the global COVID-19 crisis. “Meet the Artist – Online Edition” foresees a series of online meetings with international artists involved in diverse aspects of documentary theatre.

Our focus will be on artists beyond Europe, in an effort to create a bridge of understanding and creative exchange with critical, contemporary dramaturgies that are less known or represented. Until we meet again in the physical world, invited artists will be sharing their topics of work, methodologies and aesthetic approaches, and will be reflecting on the local sociocultural context of theatre making, as well as its future in view of the current challenging circumstances. The first artists to participate will be Omar Abi Azar (Zoukak Theatre Company) from Lebanon, Yesim Ozsoy (Galata Perform) from Turkey and Diego Aramburo (Kiknteatr) from Bolivia.

I see in documentary theatre the potential to contribute to more sensitized, more inclusive and culturally diverse theatrical experiences; the potential to renew the dramatic form and its contents, leading to new narrative and performative paths. The creation of the International Network of Documentary Theatre felt right, especially now, amidst a new global crisis that urges theatre to reflect on its mission, shape and tools, attempting to reinvent its presence on the world’s stage.

I am moved beyond words to see how warmly INDT has been received already by emerging and established artists alike, as well as students, scholars, social workers, and educators. It proves that documentary theatre—its people, processes and products—includes and speaks to a larger community that exceeds the limits of a traditional audience.

Teaser: International Network of Documentary Theatre (INDT)

[1] Saldaña, Johnny. Ethnotheatre: Research from Page to Stage. Walnut Creek, 2011.

[2] Filewood, A. Collective Encounters: Documentary Theatre in English. U of Toronto P, 1987. 


*Savas Patsalidis is a theatre professor at Aristotle University (Thessaloniki, Greece) and the Drama School of the National Theatre of Northern Greece. He is also the editor-in-chief of Critical Stages.

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