Thomas Irmer (DE) - New Documentary Theatre in Perspective


I use the term New Documentary Theatre in order to differentiate it from older, established forms of documentary theatre which are based on theatrical models following strategies that are fundamentally different in relation to the subject explored and its representations. These differences mark the quality of the New while the principal mode of Documentary theatre remains its relation to reality and its understanding. How material for a theatrical performance is gained, researched, structured, motivated and finally performed addresses many of the differences between these Old and New forms. These differences can be a starting point to put the NDT in perspective, from its emergence to its contemporary international varieties that may be discussed here. From contemporary to future developments if possible – with the big question if this were a mere recycling of reality, as our topic has it, or rather the attempt to redefine what is known as our reality to be put on stage.         


From a German point of view, but certainly not only that, we can distinguish three different periods of documentary theatre:


  1. In the 1920s Erwin Piscator incorporated film footage and scenes from recent history and political events into his mass spectacles, produced at theatres in Berlin. Understanding of staged scenes was shaped by political ideas of the time, and such elements were meant to be authentic political material on the stage. There was a clear recognition that such elements were different from the literary and poetical traditions of drama in theatre.


  1. In the 1960s emerged what we mostly understand as documentary theatre. The plays by Rolf Hochhuth, Peter Weiss and Heinar Kipphardt, their world premieres mostly directed by Piscator, used historical documents as the sources of plays offering new historical insights into the course of history through the mid-20th century. Understanding of events was shaped by analytical interpretations of documents, historical protagonists were fictionalized as characters on stage, and assumptions about history were taught to the audience for educating the audience. Two aspects were very important: Plays written by playwrights about subjects from the recent past – which became the model of the playwright as historian. (This mode of playwrighting had many international parallels)


  1. By contrast, we have seen since the late 1990s new forms of documentary based on auteur-directors’ projects, critical of historical or sociological knowledge-making while exploring history as an open project that could not be known through accepted principles and ideas. This new model shows the function of the theatre artist(s) not as an historian anymore but rather as the researcher like a journalist for special subjects, like a conductor of sociological examinations or as the inventor of unexpected performative devices to present the material. Also, what has changed so remarkably is the nature of the subject which is in most cases contemporary and can be described as our unknown present. The example best known internationally is certainly the work of Rimini Protokoll but there would be many other productions as a case in point from other countries.


Examples from several theatre cultures will demonstrate how these principles of New Documentary are at work, even when the subject seems not to be exclusively contemporary (as it is the case with Milo Rau’s The Last Days of the Ceaucescus, for instance). Finally, I will give a brief outlook to the project “Emergency Entrance” about the problems of migration which combines for the first time multinational research projects in a festival at a German-speaking municipal theatre in Graz, Austria, in January 2012. Moreover, the understanding of NDT also needs to be challenged in the larger context of theatre tendencies of the last decade that were thriving for ever more ‘authenticity’ which might be seen as a conflict between the fictional and the factual in a culture which makes this distinction fundamentally problematic and is also the material for many productions in the mode of New Documentary Theatre.