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How Real Should "Documentary Theatre" Be?

Date: Mar 21, 2014


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When you first hear about them, the one-man shows The Junket and The Real Americans couldn't sound more different. The former, written by and starring Mike Albo, is about a New York City freelance writer who attends a press junket that has damaging consequences for his career. In the latter, Dan Hoyle plays multiple characters---mechanics, soldiers, drug dealers, and more---that he met while interviewing people across small-town America.

Yet both shows tell a story about inequality, consumerism, and journalism. It makes sense, then, that the Culture Project is presenting them in rep through April 20.

"I think what's interesting about them in tandem is both Mike and I are trying to understand the times we're living in through this journalistic lens and then putting that in a theatrical medium that's wildly entertaining and not like dry news," says Hoyle. "And some of the commonality we've talked about is the increasing inequality that we hear about all the time in the news. For Mike it's in his way as a struggling freelancer and talking about the inequality in New York City, and for me it's talking about the inequality and polarization of small-town rural America and increasingly prosperous urban America."

The Junket is more literally about journalism. Albo had a column in The New York Times (called The Tomes in the play, for "legal reasons"), but he was still a freelancer. When he was invited on a trip to Jamaica as part of a press junket, he accepted, making it clear that he was not representing The Times, which has a policy against writers taking trips that are paid for by potentially interested third parties.

Albo calls his play "reality show fiction" because everything he describes about the junket and its consequences actually happened, but he still had to leave out details to make the show work as a piece of theatre.

"To tell a story, you have to economize," he says. Albo found this out firsthand when adapting his play from a novella he wrote as a Kindle Single. "It's amazing how much economy and language you have to have on stage as opposed to on the page," he says. "The attention span is so different. And every second counts. And you really don't have time to diverge."

Likewise, Hoyle is clear that The Real Americans is not a pure documentary. Some of the characters are composites, and the dialogue is a mix of actual quotes and his writing. However, he says it all honors the truth of what happened on his 100-day trek around the country. "The way I work is I create characters based on the people I meet that I feel tell the true heart of what I experienced," he says. "I sometimes start with a voice and then create the physicality. Then I use a blend of direct quotes that people told me, sometimes several different people, and then my own writing to create a portrait of somebody that I think is three-dimensional."

Seeing Hoyle play so many parts adds to the entertainment value of the show, which both Hoyle and Albo feel is a crucial distinction between theatre and journalism. "To tell the truth in journalism you shouldn't feel like you have to be entertaining: I think that's an issue that's maybe gotten us in a pickle," says Albo. "Being too concerned with entertainment value with journalism allows for websites that have really sexy headlines just so you click."

Another distinction for both writers is that theatre is about the emotional truth. "I think we encounter journalism intellectually," Hoyle says. "In theatre we do [approach things] intellectually, but I think it's primarily an emotional medium, so that allows people to hopefully have a deeper connection with the characters. And I have a captive audience for 75 minutes, so I think people are really able to go with me in a way that you're not if you're quickly reading an article."

Hoyle hopes that by telling personal stories, he can draw connections between parts of the country that don't have a lot of face-to-face interaction. Albo likes the idea of people leaving his show being a little more aware of how consumer society has leached into our lives. "We joke that we're the comedy and tragedy masks," says Albo. "Either that or the peanut butter and chocolate of theatre right now."


Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre as @PataphysicalSci

 Photo from The Junketby Ned Stresen Reuter. Photo from The Real Americans by Patrick Weishampel.