Hanover High School students are creating a new theatrical work, but they’re not writing a traditional script.
Classes are studying documentary theatre, also known as verbatim theatre, in which actors portray a collection of real-life interviews in a staged production.
HHS teacher Daniel Hefko introduced the concept to his theatre and advanced English classes.
Their assignment is to develop an original documentary play on the subject of education. For the English students, it fulfills their research requirement. For the theatre students, this will become their spring play.
Interview subjects include fellow students, Hanover High alumni, teachers, administrators, parents—basically anyone with a connection to the school. Some students have even Skyped with alumni who are currently abroad.
Each student must conduct three interviews of at least 10 minutes in length. The deadline to collect interviews is later this month.
They’re already beginning to sift through the interview recordings as they figure out how to structure the script.
The script will take exact statements from the interviews—hence “verbatim” theatre. Speech patterns will be replicated as closely as possible, and actors will be cast to perform the interviews in the spring production.
Hefko said he had wanted to do a documentary performance for a while. With Hanover High celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, now seemed like an appropriate time to do one on the subject of education.
“[Education is] something that they can relate to and they have experience with and stories about,” he said.
“Ideally, our goal is to get as many different perspectives on education, as much variety, as much detail—sort of experiences and thoughts on education,” Hefko added.
The classes have been studying existing examples of documentary theatre, such as the work of theatre artist Anna Deavere Smith, who has performed one-woman shows in the genre.
Hefko said documentary theatre does not have to appear different from any other type of play.
“One of the stereotypes about documentary theatre is oftentimes there are chairs onstage and people talking directly to the audience,” Hefko said.
“So one of the challenges is to try to find a way of making it dramatic and finding ways of creating visuals and stage images and having interaction between people, and not just a string of monologues,” he continued.
To facilitate this, some interviews have been done with small groups to bring about more of a dialogue. Also, several interviewees have been asked the same question, allowing for different responses from different individuals to play off each other.
The students are also hoping to create a dynamic product.
Rebecca Beiter, president of Hanover’s chapter of the International Thespian Society, said, “We’re trying to make it more interesting—having musical interludes and people act out stories that people are telling. And it’s really hard to incorporate that it in, but we’re trying to best we can.”
Matthew Prousalis, vice president of the thespian group, said he does not want to see a show of people sitting in chairs talking at the audience.
“It’s just something that we don’t know yet, but it’s going to be there, something that is going to draw the attention of the audience, whether it be humorous, whether it be action,” Prousalis said.
Hefko said the project should teach students a new way of looking at research.
“Research can be original research. It’s not always going to a book and finding what someone said, writing it down, and repeating it.
“Research can bring new knowledge into the world, that it can be an engaging process of actively participating rather than passively transmitting,” he said.
The project should foster collaboration among the students, and the interviewing process should also provide lessons in communication.
Beiter has found that people behave differently in formal interviews.
“People don’t want to be as outgoing as they are in person, as ridiculous as they are, because they’re on film, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to be serious.’ We’re not always looking for serious,” she said.
Prousalis has been learning about his teachers as he’s interviewed them, asking them how much time they spend working outside of school, what their weekends are like, about their own school days, and more.
“I find out interesting things about my teachers that I haven’t already known,” he said.
Beiter has learned she shouldn’t stick too closely to her pre-written list of questions.
“When I went back to the interview, I was like, we were actually talking about something interesting there. I should have had a question in the moment and asked them to expand upon that, and so I kind of beat myself up about that,” she said.
Hefko said the process is proceeding slower than he had originally hoped, but that’s not too much of a surprise. “It’s an enormous undertaking,” he said.
He has already filled up a laptop with interviews, and now an external hard drive is rapidly running out of memory.
Students have been using some of their personal equipment to assist with the project, including iPhones, iPods, and other devices.
“I’ve learned a lot about what transfers easily and what we have to find kind of a makeshift process for, so that’s kind of slowed things down a little bit more than I had hoped,” Hefko said.
This collaborative project will “give the community a chance to share in the process of creating a work of art,” he said.
Beiter commented, “When we first heard about it, we were really skeptical of it, but I like the whole interview process and how we get to actually make our own play instead of … things that have been done a million times.”
Prousalis retains some skepticism, but he encourages people to see the final product.
“I don’t know how it’s going to turn out,” he said. “It’s a new direction, and impersonating other people is a very hard task to do.”
“Don’t be discouraged to see it because it’s about something different,” Prousalis added.
Beiter said, “I’m just really excited to see the final project, because it’s kind of scattered right now and we just have a bunch of interviews, but I really want to see how it all meshes together.”
The play will be performed in the Hanover High School auditorium April 18, 19, and 20 at 7 p.m.