There’s a certain magic to presenting real people on stage. The Bull City Dignity Project is a documentary theater project, meaning the students are using the stories and words of real Durham residents in order to create a community history of this tough, shimmering city. Our production gives the students a dual task–to create a show that is authentic and ethical, and to make it aesthetic and entertaining. (1)

Traditional wisdom says that making a show aesthetic and entertaining requires giving a central role to conflict. Yesterday in rehearsal, as we read through sections of past documentary theatre pieces to discuss some of the techniques they used, we asked our students to consider the role that conflict might play in our script.  When we gather material from interviews, should we intentionally seek out conflict because it is dramatically interesting? How do we pair this desire for tension with our obligations to our interviewees?

One of the pieces we looked at was The Laramie Project, a play by the Tectonic Theater Project about a hate crime in Laramie, Wyoming against a gay man named Matthew Shepard. We two co-directors actually became friends while working on a production of The Laramie Project in high school. As high-school students, Laramie opened our eyes to a new way of making theatre with communities and real life stories. (2) Returning to the script with the Bull City Dignity students brought us both old memories and new questions. We read the following scene at last night’s rehearsal:

Kerry Drake: My most striking memory from the funeral…is seeing the Reverend Fred Phelps from Kansas… that scene go up in the park.

Reverend Fred Phelps: Do you believe in the Bible? Do you believe you’re supposed to separate the precious from the vile? You don’t believe that part of the bible? You stand over there ignorant of the fact that the Bible — two times for every verse it talks about God’s love it talks about God’s hate.

(Reverend Fred Phelps continues Sotto Voce)

Kerry Drake: A bunch of high school kids who got out early came over and started yelling at some of the people in the protest… I remember a guy, this skinhead coming over, and he was dressed in leather and spikes… I just thought “Oh, this is gonna be a really ugly confrontation,” BUT instead he came over and he started leading them in “Amazing Grace”.

Although Laramie sets up Fred Phelps as the clear villain, the Tectonic Theater Project does portray other conservative spiritual leaders in a positive light and offer a nuanced perspective on anti-LGBT+ members of faith communities. By and large, Laramieavoids setting up a straw man of anti-LGBT+ thinkers, instead focusing on the nuanced ways that homophobia is perpetuated in small towns like Laramie, Wyoming. In a similar way, although we, as two queer co-directors, have strong pro-LGBT+ sentiments, we hope to portray in an understanding, complex way those in Durham who don’t actively support queer communities. When we talk to the students about conducting their interviews, we use the acronym ORN(3) — open, respectful, neutral. As we ask questions, we hope to withhold overt judgment and instead to probe further when an interviewee articulates a view we disagree. Thus, when confronted with opposing views, we hope to say “tell me more” or “what in your life has shaped that view?” In this way, we aim to avoid indulging in a type of conflict based on a “straw-man” or caricatured antagonist.

Now in our second week of Bull City Dignity, we’ve worked with the actors to narrow the topic of the show to three contested parts of Durham’s recent history—1) economic development and gentrification, 2) faith and LGBT life, and 3) race relations and the construction of the Durham Freeway. The cast have now contacted interviewees with ties to these three topics and are in the process of conducting interviews. As we prepare to craft the transcripts of these interviews into a theatre piece, we’ve started to discuss where conflict fits in our production and the ethics of building conflict into the script.

One realization is that internal struggles can be as captivating as external ones, and documentary theatre can prove effective at revealing internal struggles. Because we are transcribing audio recordings of interviews, we can capture verbal tics and speech patterns that suggest uncertainty or conflicting emotions or belie the content of what is being said. Something as simple as an “um” or an “er” in an interview can reveal hesitancy about an idea. In addition to reading Laramie, we also looked at Robin Soan’s Talking to Terrorists, a verbatim theatre play including interviews with ex-terrorists. In the play, interviewees’ impassioned justifications of their violent acts often break down in a long pause or a sea of “ums” that suggest doubt or guilt. In a similar way, our interviewees for Bull City Dignity may reveal their conflicting emotions about the complex topics that the play addresses.

We decided early on with our cast not to shy away from the points of tension in Durham’s history that can give insight into the city’s unique identity. Yet, there’s a fine line between examining these conflicts in a nuanced, thoughtful way, and using differences in opinion to manufacture cheap drama. When putting together a script that deals with sensitive topics like LGBT+ issues, there may be a “right” side of history — and some, like Fred Phelps, may make easy villains. Even so, the telling of history that fails to make room for complexity in conflict is not only unethical; it’s inauthentic — and it’s a story that we’ve heard far too many times before.

(1) What do you call the combination of beauty and morality? Aesthethics. The directors are big fans of theater puns.

(2)The Laramie Project is not without its problems. Tectonic disappeared after their first interview process and only reappeared ten years later to follow up; their relationship with Laramie was not sustained in a way that ensured the work was community-driven or fully reciprocal.

(3) This is a permutation of ORP– “Open, Respectful, Passionate”– a phrase that’s central to Lara’s living community on campus