Emily Davis and Deirdre O'Connell Talk About Documentary Theatre and Getting It Right | Playbill

Special Features Emily Davis and Deirdre O'Connell Talk About Documentary Theatre and Getting It Right The two actors are now starring in Is This A Room and Dana H. in rep at the Lyceum Theatre.
Is This a Room and Dana H.

Emily Davis and Deirdre O'Connell sit together in front of one computer screen for a Wednesday afternoon Zoom interview, beautifully lit by dressing room mirrors. O’Connell’s day is done, having just performed the matinee of Dana H. while Davis is preparing for the evening performance of Is This A Room. (“One of us was gonna get screwed,” Davis jokes about the timing.) The two often meet in passing on two-shows day at the Lyceum theatre where the plays are running in repertory.

“Meeting in the middle” might be apt phrasing for what is happening on stage, as well.

Both plays can be categorized as documentary theatre (or sometimes called docudrama, verbatim theatre, or theatre of fact). In this type of theatre, performances are built from existing, historical, source material, such as transcripts, video footage, interviews, journalism/reporting, and scientific research.

Is This A Room is the literal transcript from the FBI interrogation of government whistleblower Reality Winner. Conceived by Tina Satter, artistic director of the downtown theatre company Half Straddle, the piece stages that actual 90 minutes in time, with Davis playing Winner. Dana H. comprises selected taped interviews with its subject, Dana Higginbotham, recounting a five month period of time in which she was held captive in a series of hotel rooms by a former psych patient she had met as ward chaplain. O’Connell portrays Dana, sitting in a chair, facing the audience, lip-syncing along to the recordings. (It’s difficult to describe the action of the play without sounding reductive. The performance is an incredible technical feat, yet does not betray the character's depths of emotion and vulnerability.)

Both productions meet the material in the middle, so to speak, and by adding their own artistic interpretations to it, create a new piece of art from the historical, recorded words.

Davis talks about approaching the transcript with questions. “When reading it, what kind of sparks are coming off the page in this woman's voice?” “What kind of power and authority does a man's body have on stage that maybe a woman doesn't traditionally have?” They aren’t recreating the transcript, but rather telling a story by highlighting moments within it. “We’re making choices about how we wanted to pull certain language out,” Davis says.

The beginning process was a little different for Dana H. Playwright Lucas Hnath, who also happens to be Higginbotham’s son, had Steve Cosson, artistic director of the investigative theatre company The Civilians, interview his mother about this event in their lives. Hnath then took portions of those recorded interviews to create the script for Dana H. so, as opposed to the literal slice of time in Is This A Room, Dana H. edits and compacts the storytelling. The audience is still getting the verbatim interview, but told in the way the playwright wants to tell it.

“I often feel like the purpose of the piece, at its most basic, is to create a link between Lucas and his mother,” says O’Connell, bringing up yet another way to apply our “meet in the middle” phrase. She says her job is to stay out of the way. “There’s a huge amount of interpretation that goes on, and every day it’s different, but I can feel it like an electric shock if I start acting or enjoying my own interpretive powers.”

When asked about the challenges of “getting it right” in documentary theatre, both actors answer the question technically. O’Connell mentions being slightly off on a lip-synch; Davis mentions the strict choreography and hitting every single stage picture. After all, they aren’t recreating something, they are reinterpreting something, so maybe there is no “right.”

They do both, however, still feel a huge responsibility to their plays’ subjects. Though it may be interpretation, it still must be truthful. “We made something of our own,” says Davis, “but we probably wouldn’t have gone forward with it if we didn’t have the blessings of the family...At the end of the day, it is ultimately a kind of celebration of this deeply complicated person.” The real Dana H. has seen the production a few times. O’Connell says that one time she said “I was pleased.” Another time she said,”Okay. It’s yours now.” How’s that for getting it right?

Is This A Room plays through November 27, and Dana H. runs through November 28.

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