From Propaganda to Profundity: A History of Documentary and Verbatim Theatre

Documentary theatre, or “docudrama,” uses documentary material such as interviews, media, and journals to create a personal connection between historical or current events and its audiences.  Anna Deveare Smith, a contemporary master of documentary theatre, frames the form as, “giving voice to the unheard and reiterating the voice of the heard in such a way that you question, or re-examine, what the truth is.”  

Contemporary documentary theatre developed in the Soviet Union during the 1920s-1930s with The Blue Blouse (titled for their blue uniforms), an agitprop theatre collective. The USSR’s Department of Agitation and Propaganda employed these troupes to dramatize current events and impart societal ideals, habits, and political messages to Soviet citizens.  By 1924, these performances sparked the term “Zhivaya Gazeta,” meaning Living Newspaper.

In 1930s England, audiences saw historical and documentary dramas at the radical left-wing Unity Theatre. In alignment with the Soviets’ use of Living Newspaper, they combined truth and political agenda to craft rhetorical performances. Similarly, in the United States documentary theatre was adopted on a large scale during the Great Depression and New Deal under the Roosevelt administration’s Federal Theatre Project. The Great Depression inspired many spectacle and vaudeville productions tackling labor, housing, and agriculture issues. These plays would use character devices like “The Little Man” or “Loudspeaker” to represent the audience and American citizens. Spearheaded by Hallie Flanagan, Living Newspapers became a hit of the 1930s. By 1936, the height of the Project’s activities these free performances found weekly audiences of 350,000 people in New York City alone. 

With the widespread use of the form came criticism of its messages that many considered communistic and socialistic. Eventually, these critiques became charges as Flanagan was called to testify under suspicion of using the Federal Theatre Project to subvert American values and support a socialist agenda. Shortly thereafter, the Works Progress Administration defunded its theatre sector, and with it, the growth of documentary theatre.

The genre’s resurgence came during Bertolt Brecht’s artistic reign and his isolationist aesthetic practices in the 1960s and 1970s. German documentary theatre focused on the Holocaust, drawing its text from tribunals and transcripts. Plays from the region include Peter Weiss’ The Investigation (1965), which depicts the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials of 1963-1965 through Weiss’ first-person accounts.

In Israel and the Middle East, Nola Chilton, a socially-engaged theatre pioneer, quickly popularized the form. Her theatre of testimony featured the voices of marginalized groups in the area, going on to later influence American artists.

The United States saw a more prevalent political comeback of documentary theatre in the 1960s with plays like In White America (1963) by Martin Duberman, a documentary play that traces the efforts for racial equality in the US before the Civil Rights Movement. While productions became increasingly experimental, the emergence of Verbatim Theatre—theatre which exclusively uses historical accounts, testimony, and other found sources—arose from British artist Peter Cheeseman. Cheeseman used exact transcriptions of recorded interviews in his plays Hands Up, For You the War is Ended! (1971) and Fight for Shelton Bar (1977).

In the 1990s, contemporary documentary theatre shifted from a broader historical perspective to a more personal one. Anna Deavere Smith is a pioneer of the contemporary style with her plays Fires in the Mirror (1992) and Twilight: Los Angeles (1994). Other contemporary artists using the genre opt for more artistic leeway with their plays, including Dael Orlandersmith, taking the context, ideas, thoughts, and reactions to a particular event and crafting characters as remnants of real people.

In a reversal from documentary theatre’s past focus on recreating an historical record with word-perfect fidelity, Orlandersmith looks to her interviews with a wider lens, with a focus on empathy and humanity. As she reflected in an interview with The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis about creating Until the Flood, Orlandersmith wants to create personal connections between the audience and these characters, not to learn facts about the shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson, but to engage with the larger historical and personal questions the shooting and its aftermath brought into wide consciousness. As she says of her mission, “Did I give them permission to feel both comfortable and uncomfortable? That’s what interests me, because I don’t speak for people, I speak to people. Because when you start speaking for people, you get on a political tirade, and I know this situation goes beyond the political. It extends itself into personal stories and the emotional and how we live on a day-to-day basis. What are our personal narratives? And how do we feel about this, knowing this could have happened with these two young men?”

—Jada Boggs