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When the Media Meet: Working on Both Stage and Screen

By Tamara Krinsky

Ladysmith Black Mambazo, subjects of Eric Simonson's 'On Tiptoe: Gentle Steps to Freedom.'

Theater begins alone, a seed in the mind of a playwright, nourished by imagination until a script is born. Many caretakers—actors, directors, designers—help grow the project until it reaches maturity and blooms in front of a live audience for a fleeting moment. It then lives on only in the memory of those who have witnessed its happening and found recognition, meaning and catharsis in the stories that have been told.

The life cycle of a documentary occurs in almost the exact opposite order, beginning with many hands as directors, directors of photography and producers recording life as it is happening, hoping to be in the right place at the right time to capture moments that occur only once. Then, alone in the dark, the editor, along with the director, takes the fruit of this labor, distills it to its essence and commits it to a permanent medium. The final film can live forever, perpetually providing audiences the opportunity to revisit a specific moment in life again and again. 

Though seemingly very different, theater and documentary in many ways are inverse versions of one another. Both use elements of dramatic structure, the ability to live in and be affected by the moment and an understanding of human behavior to tell stories and present ideas that help us to understand and reflect upon our own realities and truths. A number of people have chosen to work in both media, taking the aesthetics and lessons learned from one and applying them to the other.

To Doc or To Block? 

When artists find a new subject that fascinates and begs exploration, one of the first questions they must answer is how to best tell that particular story. Writer/director Eric Simonson first worked with the great South African a cappella singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo while developing and directing the Tony Award-nominated play The Love Song of Jacob Zulu at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

Simonson had been looking to direct a film, and decided to do a short, narrative piece in which the singing group starred. "The more I worked on the short film, the more I realized I was more interested in their real life story than in any fictional story," says Simonson. Thus, On Tiptoe: Gentle Steps To Freedom, which started out as a 10-minute narrative short, ended up as a 40-minute, Emmy- and Oscar-nominated—and IDA Award-winning—documentary film. 

Recently, Simonson co-wrote and directed the play Worksong: Three Views of Frank Lloyd Wright. The play uses a combination of fact and fiction to explore the famous architect's life. Simonson says that he chose to write a play about Wright instead of making a documentary because, in addition to the fact that the architect is no longer alive, "Frank Lloyd Wright, I think, works as a prospect for a fiction narrative because everyone knows him. You can get a biography, you can get the [Ken Burns] documentary, you can read all about him, but no one's expressed that in an artistic or a fictional way. Something like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, they're right there. There's not that much interest in their lives as fictional accounts."

Acting Lessons

Actress LisaGay Hamilton chose to document the life of African-American actress Beah Richards prior to her passing in 2001, rather than tell the story of her life through a narrative play or a biopic. "The power of a nonfictional piece is that it's the real deal," Hamilton maintains. "In this instance, it was about preserving who Beah was while she was on this planet before she was going to die."

Hamilton, who trained at Julliard and was a regular on David E. Kelley's The Practice, became close with Richards after the two worked together in the Jonathan Demme film Beloved. While making the documentary, Hamilton developed an acute sensitivity in relation to accurately representing Richards on screen, a sensitivity that has found its way back into her acting. "It has had an impact...on my interest in fictional pieces to the extent that even if they're not my words, I still want them to be truthful and I want my performance to be truthful, even though it's imaginary, to a certain extent."

Filmmaker/actor Hank Rogerson, currently at work on the documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars, a chronicle of a Shakespeare program in a Kentucky prison, also found a connection between his work on stage and his work behind the camera. "The two really do feed each other and interplay and work well with each other," he notes. He has found his improv background particularly helpful when making documentaries. "There's spontaneity in improv, there's spontaneity in acting because you never know what the other actor is going to give you just have to be willing to adapt and go with the flow and let go." Similarly, explains Rogerson, as a documentary filmmaker, life is occurring in front of you and you must be able to employ that same spontaneity and follow your impulses. The ability to be in the moment has been integral to his work. 

Reading Between the Lines

Often skills accumulated over a lifetime working in one medium come unexpectedly into focus in another. Such was the case when veteran documentarian Frederick Wiseman, whose films range from the 1967 Titicut Follies to the recent Domestic Violence, ventured into the theatrical directing arena. He has worked at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and with the Comedie Française in Paris, and will be directing his play The Last Letters in New York this fall. Wiseman found that when moving from documentary to stage, he drew largely on his knowledge and understanding of human behavior, the result of years spent in studied, intense observation of people in an enormous variety of situations while making his films.

He also found the process of structuring films in the editing room and interpreting dramatic texts to be quite similar. "One of the things you have to do in documentary is try to figure out what's going on in a scene—both literally what's going on, and what you think the motivations of the people are," he explains. "And that's exactly what you have to do when you read a theater text-you have to figure out what you think is happening between the people, both on a conscious and an unconscious level. So the documentary experience was invaluable in directing the plays."


Sometimes it's not a question of which media to use, but rather of how to best combine them in order to explore different aspects of the same story. Such was the case with Eve Ensler's and Judith Katz's What I Want My Words To Do To You, which is about the women in a writing group run by Ensler at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York.

Performer/playwright Ensler (The Vagina Monologues, Necessary Targets) and Katz met when the latter was a film studio development executive covering theatre, looking for potential plays to turn into movies. At Ensler's invitation, she attended a benefit theatrical performance in which well-known actresses such as Glenn Close, Marisa Tomei and Rosie Perez read pieces that had been written by the inmates. Katz was so moved by the performance that she decided to produce a documentary on the program. 

After they had shot their footage, Ensler and Katz enlisted the help of playwright Gary Sunshine and editor Madeleine Gavin to put the film together. The two had met in the MFA Dramatic Writing Program at New York University. Their biggest challenge in the editing room was figuring out how to structure the film. Sunshine and Gavin were given "a large blob" of raw footage of writing sessions at the prison that had no obvious linear progression. "We used our backgrounds as dramatists to make the story make sense and to find the structure," Sunshine recalls. "All that grad school Aristotelian structure came into play." 

In addition to utilizing her grounding in the classics, Gavin found herself drawing on her experiences as an actress and her understanding of performance to help construct and define the inmates' character arcs and track their journeys. Ultimately, Gavin and Sunshine settled on using an emotional rather than chronological trajectory to structure the film and drive forward the narrative, following the women's movements through the cycle of victimization, victimizing, self-realization and guilt.

The documentary could not have been made without the theater piece, since an important part of the story is the fact that award-winning actresses came to the prison to perform the inmates' work. The project is a strong example of how different artistic forms can fulfill different needs.

Watching the actresses read their stories at the live performance validated and legitimized the inmates' lives in a way in which reading their own work never could have done. It also allowed them to have some distance from their own words, thus creating a space for them to reflect on their experiences.

Ensler, a self-professed theater person, felt there were different things that could be explored in a documentary about the program. "There are other things you see and can record and can play with that you can't do in the theater piece. Like process, for example. Or looking at something over time and how that emerges, which I think is really fascinating."

Ultimately, one of the most powerful moments in the film comes from a fusion of the two art forms, as the documentary audience in the movie theater watches the filmed version of the inmates watching the live performance at Bedford. "It reveals them in a way," says Ensler. "They are there somehow; they're present, they're undeniable. And their lives and the stories of their lives are undeniable. I think that's really important, particularly for women who are essentially invisible in a culture that puts people away and forgets about them."

Curtain Call

One of the surprising things that the artists who participated in this article discovered was how working in a different medium boomeranged to affect process and aesthetics in their primary area of expertise. Sometimes it changed the way they worked, sometimes it was simply an increased understanding and appreciation for the strengths of each mode of storytelling.

"The editing process was such a thrill for me and so joyous," Sunshine reflects. "There's something about the mechanical process of putting together bits into sequences into a whole story that I've brought back into writing. Paring something down to its essence and creating a whole from that."

Simonson found that crossing back and forth allowed him to further define the kind of work he wanted to be doing in each art form. "When I go back to theater, I start thinking more about how I can make the work more like theater and less like film," he says. "If I'm creating a new piece, it's about the connection with the audience and not giving them exactly literally what they need, but maybe more metaphorically or allegorically what they might need or want."

After working in both art forms, Wiseman has a clearer understanding of how he wants to use each to tell different kinds of stories. When working in live theater, he prefers to take advantage of the unique opportunity it presents to create original pieces that stem from the imagination and that contain situations, imagery or language one would never come across in documentary. However, says Wiseman, "When I want to document people`s lives, I prefer film. In film, you have an opportunity to follow people as they live through their ordinary experience. If you are lucky and patient, you find dramatic, comic, tragic and sad events which as they naturally unfold are as funny, sad or tragic as great fiction. The job of the documentary filmmaker is to recognize and order these found sequences into a dramatic structure."

Ultimately, a respect for the power of storytelling lies at the heart of each art form. Jilann Spitzmiller, who is producing Shakespeare Behind Bars with Rogerson, found herself gaining an appreciation for the need for different kinds of storytelling as she watched the men in the Kentucky prison program work through their rehearsal process of The Tempest. "I love documentary vs. fiction because it feels so vibrant and alive to me as you're trying to capture this beast which is life and make sense out of it. And in the theater, that process is even stronger. I see that it's such a vitally important thing in our society-theater as a mode of storytelling—because I see these guys telling their own stories through the words of someone else."


Tamara Krinsky is an actress and the associate editor of International Documentary.