For those of us that teach and learn in the Northern hemisphere, the end of the academic year is soon to be upon us. I always quite like this period, as you tend to find yourself developing new curriculum materials for the forthcoming year. This week I have been researching and writing materials for different kinds of documentary theatre, most specifically verbatim theatre and Living Newspapers, and it is the latter I want to write about today.
Now my knowledge of Living Newspapers was not huge. I knew that the form first emerged in Russia in the early 20th century, where it was used to present news and Bolshevik propaganda to the illiterate masses. Vsevolod Meyerhold and Vladimir Mayakovsky are connected with the genre, as are Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator. The form included using lantern slides (projections), songs, newspaper readings, and film segments – so, very ‘multimedia’ for the time. During my research however, I was intrigued to come across the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), which in certain sources, is mistakenly claimed to be the originator of Living Newspapers. FTP was part of a government funded arts program established in the US in the 1930s, which wrote and presented a number of Living Newspapers on social issues of the day. You can see some of the scripts here. The Manual For Federal Theatre Project makes fascinating reading. Not surprisingly, the political ideology behind the Living Newspaper was controversial and the FPT was disbanded in 1939. However, as noted by Alexis Soloski in an article for The Guardian, the Federal Theatre Project
….codified the genre, drawing on techniques first introduced by Bolshevik artists and the Italian futurists. A series of documentary plays with an activist bent, Living Newspapers used theatrical techniques to render complicated social and political issues relevant and intelligible. Playwrights researched various topics – poverty, the invasion of Ethiopia, venereal disease – and then invented a narrative and characters to dramatise them. Low ticket prices made them accessible to a popular audience. Living Newspapers weren’t subtle – for better or worse. They simplified complicated issues and felt no particular compunction to represent all sides of an argument. Some of the scripts are quite preachy and end with a call for action, such as joining a union or being tested for syphilis.
It seems there are few companies currently engaged in creating Living Newspapers. One exception is C & T Theatre Company, who run a project for young people, called, not surprisingly, Living Newspaper. They have created a series of ‘5 Rules’ – Be Funny, Be Direct, Juxtapose, Agitate and Let the Facts Speak For Themselves – with accompanying videos that tell you how to create effective Living Newspapers:
C &T have a global reach, having created Living Newspapers in Japan about passive smoking, in Australia about Climate Change and lead workshops in Gambia about how to create online Living Newspapers using mobile phones.
Essentially all documentary theatre is political by nature, being a call for social action. In the U.S. The Civilians Investigative Theatre is leader in the field. In the UK, Common Wealth Theatre are a force to be reckoned with too. The difference with the Living Newspaper form is that it is meant to agitate, to call for direct action with a view to bringing about change in a very visceral way.
I think I’m off now to make my own, featuring a certain Donald Trump!
Vive La Revolution, People!