A new documentary play will explore issues of family violence in New Zealand while seeking to advance the practice of this increasingly popular genre.

Documentary theatre - also known as verbatim theatre - is well established in Britain and the US. It has been used to investigate social issues, such as racism and gay identity, to tell local and national stories and, increasingly since 9/11, to explore international political issues such as terrorism and the war in Iraq.

Associate Professor Stuart Young and executant lecturer Hilary Halba, from Otago's Theatre Studies programme, are investigating how documentary theatre can be used to address major social issues in New Zealand - family violence, in particular.

"We chose this topic because we feel it will resonate with New Zealanders," says Halba. "Although we want to get beyond the high-profile cases covered in the popular press and focus on domestic violence in another sense, one that is less sensational, but no less important."

Young says there is a danger in presenting the sensational side. "One of the responses to verbatim theatre is that all you end up doing is wringing hands," he says. "We're concerned not to make it so remote that it doesn't implicate you as the spectator. Stories that are in a sense more mundane are more accessible."

The first stage of the project is to conduct interviews with a range of subjects. They will get in touch with people through Dunedin social-service agencies and invite them to participate. "We hope to talk to people who have been victims of violence, people responsible for violence, and perhaps those who have been tempted towards violence and stopped," says Halba.

"It will be interesting to set the subject matter of the play side-by-side with our investigation of the processes of documentary theatre," says Young. "We hope to address some of the problematic issues identified with the genre in recent academic study, particularly relating to the relationship between the material assembled and 'truth'."

One aspect of the process with the potential to affect truthfulness is the choice of material selected from the interviews. This creates a challenging role for researcher and writer Simon O'Connor and dramaturg Fiona Graham, who will help select and shape material for performance.

"We know we will collect much more material than we can possible use," says Halba. "We may focus on individual stories, or some other theme may emerge we can use to help shape a performance piece. One of the skills in creating documentary plays is being open to going in whatever direction the material takes us."

The team will also explore different approaches to acting in and staging documentary theatre. "We want to use a technique where each actor wears headphones through which the soundtrack of the interviews is played," says Halba. "It's about exactness. This helps actors accurately reflect not only the interview subject's words, but also their patterns of speech."

Young and Halba plan to assemble a small group of professional actors to present the work early next year and they intend to write up the results of their research.


University of Otago Research Grant