Journalistic documentary theatre combines facts and fiction. At the same time, it makes the connection between the true and untrue visible in a much-needed way.
Journalism lives in the present. During the digital age, news may be news for only a few minutes to be quickly replaced by new, more urgent topics.
As for theatre, it is long-term work. Staging a production, including the ideas, script, and rehearsals, may take months, even years. After this, the play will be performed more or less unchanged night after night.
What happens when these two ways of doing things are combined? This was explored at the University of Tampere in the Jodote research project whose final report was published last spring. One part of the project was the aforementioned series of performances called The Suomalainen “Pressi” Klubi which was put together by students and teachers of journalism and theatre and Aamulehti, a major local newspaper. The aim of the project was to find out what journalistic documentary theatre could offer that neither journalism nor theatre can on their own.
When the idea for the project began to take shape in early 2012, journalism was changing. Editors were wondering how to solve issues related to profits at a time when the print media were losing more and more subscribers as well as advertising revenues.
In the world of theatre, Susanna Kuparinen’s new documentary play Eduskunta II (Parliament II) was gaining attention. It made the concept of documentary theatre known to the larger public in Finland.
“Although in reality, theatre has always had a lot to do with documentarity. Maybe in the present-day modern theatre it is not suitable to speak of documentary theatre as a distinct genre. Perhaps it would be better to speak of the relationship between documentarity and performance,” ponders Laura Gröndahl, Docent of Theatre Research.
Can the journalistic approach bring straightforwardness and a certain type of lightness to theatre?
The Jodote project was led by Anssi Männistö who is university lecturer in visual journalism. He is interested in analysing what kind of potential journalism could bring to theatre.
“In journalism, it is essential to quickly comprehend the current world and significant phenomena. How could the daily changing focus and the specific way to speak to the audience be mixed with theatre? Could the journalistic approach bring straightforwardness and a certain type of lightness to theatre? I found these questions very fascinating.”
In the performances of The Suomalainen “Pressi” Klubi, journalism was brought to the world of theatre by changing the performances according to current news topics. Sometimes, the performances were also changed on the go according to what was happening in the audience; even municipal decision-makers who were spotted were brought onto stage.
Journalistic background analysis was also conducted for the performances, such as interviews and looking into various data.
“For example, it was great when something that was said in an interview or in an official document became a choir performance. That has such a different effect on the audience compared to reading news,” Männistö enthuses.
When it came to teaching, the project was extraordinary because it did not have predefined pedagogical goals; they were formed during the project. According to Mikko Kanninen, university lecturer in acting, the project turned out to be a pedagogical success.
“For example, students who have already graduated have continued similar projects in their journalistic work. In addition, all the students in the project said that their perception of the profession expanded. The students were able to encounter and do things that they had never imagined doing in their profession,” Kanninen says.
The project was also a success in combining teaching and research. According to Kanninen, this is the best type of art teaching a multidisciplinary university can provide.
“It is great when the teaching can be strongly connected to current research. This project was exactly that,” Kanninen says.
Kanninen hopes that research and different disciplines could be mixed also in the future.
The rise of populism and other recent events have proven how dangerous performativity can be.
In a way, the oversupply of current topics was one of the challenges in the project. In the autumn of 2015, when the production was going full steam, the news were filled with reports on the refugees who had arrived in Finland.
Later, the aftermath of the events in the autumn of 2015 brought up the problematic relationship between facts and fiction, which is also present onstage.
“In the light of the rise of populism and other recent events, it has become clear how dangerous performativity can be. It is more important than ever that people make clear what is fact and what is fiction in all situations. And still, the two unavoidably get confused. In addition, some facts are inevitably more true than others. One must question that relationship at all times, also when doing theatre,” Gröndahl says.
According to Gröndahl, successful documentary theatre - especially the journalistic form - can illustrate how the true and untrue are being mixed up. In this way, it can make the viewer respond more critically to different performances, regardless of whether the main role is played by professional actors or professional politicians.
“Documentary theatre can thus make the relationship between facts and fiction visible in a good and constructive way,” Gröndahl continues.
The Jodote journalistic documentary theatre research project:
The Jodote research project was carried out in 2013–2016 as a collaboration between several disciplines and research fields. Teaching and research in the fields of theatre work, journalism, and theatre and drama research were combined in the project. In addition, the Tampere Research Centre for Journalism, Media and Communication (COMET) and the Centre for Practise as Research in Theatre (T7) participated in the project. The project was funded by the KONE Foundation.
The project consisted of three parts:
The first part was about researching the background and history of documentary theatre in Finland and internationally as well as investigative journalism in Finland.
The second part was about staging documentary theatre performances based on the current and journalistic data collection. The performances took place in the autumn of 2015 at the TTT-Theatre under the name Suomalainen “Pressi” Klubi (The Finnish “Press” Club).
The third part involved analysing the manners of representation of theatre and journalism as well as various experiments about them. The project was based on the teaching situations, workshops and joint projects undertaken by students and teachers in theatre work and journalism.
The final report of the project Journalistisen dokumenttiteatterin mahdollisuus (The possibility of journalistic documentary theatre) was published in the spring of 2017.
Text: Hanna Hyvärinen
Translation: Sanni Irjala
Photograph: Anssi Männistö