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Journalists, Theaters Collaborate on Dramatizing the News

| May 31, 2013
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By Xandra Clark

When you enter the Tides Theatre near San Francisco’s Union Square on performance night, one of the last things you expect to find is investigative journalism.

Her War scene

Sarah Moser rehearses her role as a homeless female veteran in Jon Bernson’s “Guide to the Aftermath,” a theatrical adaptation of a documentary film from the Center for Investigative Reporting. (Photo: Xandra Clark)

But that’s precisely what audience members will find over the next three weekends, starting Friday night.

Two plays will be performed as part of StoryWorks, a new partnership between the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) and Tides. “Guide to the Aftermath” is playwright Jon Bernson’s one-act drama based on a documentary film made by CIR correspondent Mimi Chakarova. It’s the story of a homeless female Iraq War veteran who is suffering from military sexual trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The goal is to create work that’s “bold and truthful,” said Jennifer Welch, director of “Guide to the Aftermath” and the companion one-act play, “Headlock,” which stems from a series of investigative news articles by reporter Ryan Gabrielson about patient abuse in centers for the developmentally disabled in California. The series was adapted as  “Headlock” by San Francisco playwright William Bivins.

In addition to its collaboration with Tides Theatre, Berkeley-based CIR recently partnered with Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Open Show, a San Francisco curator of arts events, to showcase a few animated short films. Even more unusual: José Vadi, a spoken-word poet, just got a desk in CIR’s newsroom.

The Journo-Theatrical Connection

On the other side of the country, public radio favorite “This American Life” held a live performance at New York University’s Skirball Theater in May of last year. Show host Ira Glass led a cast of dancers, musicians, comedians and writers through an exploration of true stories on the theme “The Invisible Made Visible.” Between the Skirball audience and those who watched the live broadcast in U.S. and Canadian theaters, more than 60,000 people saw the one-time show.

Shirley Smallwood

Shirley Smallwood plays real-life Renee Banton, the founder of a recovery program for homeless veterans in Los Angeles. (Photo: Xandra Clark)

Dozens of similar events in this emerging genre of performed journalism have been staged around the country — from a dance piece inspired by a Pulitzer Prize winner’s book about the Vietnam War to the performance of a magazine, ads and all.

In response to declining print circulation and shrinking ad revenue, a number of major newspapers and magazines jumped into the live-events business several years ago, typically in the form of well-publicized conversations with thinkers, scholars and writers. But now some news organizations are also mounting theatrical productions.

Journalists involved in these collaborations see the potential to greatly increase reader engagement, bring in younger audiences, facilitate public dialogue on important issues of the day and bring in new revenue. And it lends a refreshing air of fun to news consumption, they say.

“It’s not a huge leap, actually,” said Doug McGray, editor-in-chief of San Francisco’s Pop-Up Magazine. Pop-Up bills itself as the world’s “first live magazine,” bringing writers together several times a year to perform pieces that coalesce into a non-fiction narrative magazine. The nearly 3,000 seats for the May show this year sold out within 10 minutes, and all promotion was done through word of mouth, McGray said.

“There’s a hunger for getting together in real space and unplugging and having a live experience,” he said.

There are limitations, of course, and “This American Life’s” Ira Glass said some journalists who have tried it think it’s “a pain in the ass.”

Theater of the Immediate

In her Tides Theatre collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting, director Jennifer Welch hopes to address immediate issues in the news. Consequently, the one-act plays being performed are not full-blown theatrical productions, but more like workshops, with a behind-the-scenes feel.

Documentary theater, an established genre, usually addresses news events from a few years prior, since it often takes that amount of time to develop a play from start to finish, Welch said. But StoryWorks did it in a little over two months.

“A year from now, the material wouldn’t be as meaningful,” Welch said.

Tides called for submissions from playwrights in April, and by May 1 actors were in rehearsal. The workshop production will run through mid-June.

Unlike documentary theater, the dialogue is not taken directly from interviews. Instead, the playwrights have taken artistic license to write dialogue drawn from the CIR projects.

A Poet in the Newsroom

As part of a more long-term endeavor, CIR has brought into its newsroom José Vadi, the spoken-word poet. He’s heading up the Off/Page Project, a partnership between the center and Youth Speaks, a teen spoken-word group in Oakland.

Vadi defines the work as “sourced storytelling.” Investigative reporting is paired with personal stories of people in the East Bay community — and across the country — who have experienced issues like gun violence or the loss of a home firsthand.

“It’s asking them, ‘If we gave you a lens to tell your story, what would you tell?’ ” Vadi said. “It’s a mutual awakening on either side.”

When Off/Page provided some CIR data about Stockton to teens who live there, “their reaction was, ‘Wow, we knew it was bad, but we didn’t know [with] all these new downtown facilities, only 20 percent of the revenue was being given back to the actual city,’ ” Vadi said. “But they saw it, and they experienced it on a day-to-day level.”

Off/Page is trying to tell those personal stories.

“All these things, topically, we can’t address without a multi-prism format,” Vadi said. “One of those angles of the prism is storytelling, and performed storytelling.”

You can buy tickets to the StoryWorks performances here.

Xandra Clark is a reporter for Peninsula Press.

 

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