Documentary Theatre: Some Assembly Required

img_9138I was so pleased to see that there was finally another piece of documentary theatre at the National Arts Centre.  I think the last time there was any documentary theatre present in the English Theatre season was around 2014 when Seeds graced the stage in the Babs Asper Theatre.  The Assembly – Montreal, however, was very different.  Whereas Seeds was a somewhat grander production and told the tale of a farmer and the world of GMO crops, The Assembly – Montreal took place in the more intimate Azrieli Studio and turned the theatre space into a conversation space.

The play was based on a round-table discussion that took place in Montreal a few yeas ago between four individuals of different, ages, races, genders, and political backgrounds.  The discussion was moderated by playwrights Brett Watson (played by Marcel Jeannin) and Alex Ivanovici (played by himself). What came out of this assembly of individuals was a (sometimes heated) political discussion.  Although the bulk of the play was a recreation and dramatization of this political debate, the play was divided into two other sections.  The last part was a re-enactment of a conversation with an American woman about her political views; the recording of that meeting had been a significant conversation piece in the assembly in Montreal.  But it was the part of the play that occurred in between these two re-enactments that was probably the most interesting of all.

After the main story took place, the actors acknowledged the audience and left the assembly, leaving the round table open for discussion.  Audience members were asked to come up to the table on their own, start their own assembly, and generate a political discussion based on what they had seen in the play.  Near the end of the spontaneous discussion, one of the actors joined in to moderate and to ask some hard hitting questions about the subject matter in one of the more significant moments of the play. This was probably my favourite part of the play because it was totally unique and unscripted, and it challenged all audience members – whether they were participating in the discussion at the table or not – to really think about what it was they had seen on stage.  And that is what I love about theatre.  Some of my favourite plays are the ones that spark conversations and force you to really think about what it is that you’ve seen and how it applies to the real world.

What was really fascinating about the political debate – both scripted and unscripted – was that different viewpoints were presented. Of course, with the audience participation section, the different viewpoints presented were completely random, but there seemed to be more care in the selection of participants who had taken part in the assembly in Montreal.  Even when two individuals were on the same side of the political spectrum, their viewpoints were not necessarily the same.  The opinions and temperaments of each of the four participants were completely different, so not only was there a wider variety of political views presented, but this means that each individual audience member would have experienced the play in a different way.  We identify with the character whose political views are closest to our own, and the character who we identify with the least becomes the “bad guy”.

But what I really found interesting was that all of these characters were well rounded.  They were not simply expressing one cut and dry political viewpoint.  There were aspects to all of their arguments that I could at least sympathize with, or even agree with.  Even the character whose views I disagreed with the most, still made a good point here and there.  So I really appreciated that these were multifaceted characters and that even if  you disagreed with someone, it didn’t mean you had to hate them.

As a piece of theatre, I enjoyed it overall.  The dialogue was structured in such a way that it flowed naturally, as if it was all an unscripted political discussion where everyone interrupts and talks over one another.  Unfortunately, there were more than a few moments where the moderators chimed in that did not sound all that natural.  At times, it sounded as if they were trying to rush through the script.  Something else that worked really well was the way the scenes were structured. There were moments throughout the play which featured an aside with different characters each time as they gave their unfiltered opinions about what was going on.  This really made this on-stage performance feel like a filmed documentary.

There was just one thing about the play that broke the illusion that this was a documentary.  At times, the participants of the assembly would move around in the stage in strangely choreographed ways.  I’m not sure if this was an abstract artistic attempt at showcasing the inner personalities or political leanings of the characters, but it just didn’t work for me.  It was odd (not in a good way), and stood out for all the wrong reasons.

I really enjoyed this play and I forgot how much I love documentary theatre.  It’s so rare that these kinds of plays come to the NAC and I wish I got to see them more often.  I think what I like about seeing this theatre style is the variety.  Every year, for the past ten or so years, I’ve seen eight plays per season.  I have always been drawn to the less conventional pieces, but especially now that I have been subscribing to the English Theatre series for so long, I’m drawn to the plays that are different from the majority of the shows that take place at the NAC.  I really hope I get to see even more documentary theatre pieces in future English Theatre seasons.

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