Oral History as Performance

Kate Brenner reflects on Sam Robson's workshop. This workshop featured a staged reading of Robson’s one-act play Timothy and Mary, which is based on the oral histories of two interviewees from his OHMA thesis.  This talk took place on Thursday, September 11, 2014.

Oral history lends itself to creative adaptation. What other medium allows you to explore such depth of character? In a recent OHMA workshop, OHMA alum Sam Robson presented his play, Timothy and Mary, which has many parallels to two famous plays also based on oral histories, Fires in the Mirror and The Laramie Project. While it has similar themes and purpose, its unique approach to dementia plays with the notion of oral history as performance.

Oral history performances are often used as ways to address political issues. Fires in the Mirror was created in response to the Crown Heights riots that erupted in 1991 after a young Caribbean-American boy was hit and killed by a Jewish driver. Tensions escalated even more when, in response, a group of black teenagers killed a Jewish student. Anna Deavere Smith chose to tackle this issue in her one-woman play, Fires in the Mirror. She conducted interviews with people on each side of the conflict, and then she compiled them into a play, acting as every one of the characters.

The Laramie Project arose from the murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998. A theater company wanted to understand the town where a hate crime like this took place, so they, like Smith, interviewed the people in the community. The multitude of voices they included created a more encompassing portrayal of the town.

This is the first part of Anna Deavere Smith's play, "Fires in the Mirror." Smith's dramatic technique is highly unusual. She interviews hundreds of citizens and community leaders, recording their words and then composing the play as a series of fragments from these interviews.

Uploaded by The American School in London on 2014-06-26.

In contrast, Sam Robson’s piece started out in a very personal place. His father had Alzheimer’s. In doing research for his thesis, he only found stories of caretakers, not any from people with Alzheimer’s. After conducting interviews with those who had Alzheimer’s, he came to consider them more as just “very forgetful people.” In fact, most of his play is about his character’s memories, not the lack thereof. He describes it as a love story. By taking away the stigma associated with Alzheimer’s, he attempts to redefine how society views people with Alzheimer’s, which makes the play as politically relevant as the other two discussed here.

Sam’s play does vary from the other two in a few ways. Most notably is that his two characters, Timothy and Mary, are not real people. The other plays rely on the strength of specificity of their characters and the stories they tell. Sam instead created composite characters, formed both from the different stories of the people he interviewed, as well as personal experiences with his father. He talked at the reading of his play about his nervousness at creating characters, and the liberation he felt when he realized that as characters they wouldn’t be able to represent anyone fully. Writing his play as fiction allows him the freedom to do that. Mary recounts the story of waking up and finding Timothy eating and watching TV one morning before dawn. Sam did not pull that from an interview or his own life experience, but as he explained in the question and answer session after the reading, “I made it up, but it was true.” It was an authentic story, though technically one that never happened. 

Uploaded by Kate Brenner on 2014-11-30.

An interesting difference between all three plays is how they acknowledge the fact they come from oral history interviews. Fires in the Mirror’s characters directly speak at the viewer, as if responding to their questions. There is no explicit acknowledgement of the interview, yet the viewer feels like they occupy the space of the interviewer. The Laramie Project brings the viewer to the site of the interview as a bystander, and the actual interviewing is presented as part of the play. Timothy and Mary has an interviewer as a character they interact with, but in a more conceptual way. The interviewer, 5AM, which one audience member pointed out looks a lot like SAM, asks questions sometimes to the point of agitation. His existence both validates and frustrates the storytelling of the characters, especially Timothy, who has Alzheimer’s. His questions are fine until Timothy feels he has to defend himself against the portrayal of him as someone who has memory problems, explaining that he didn’t get lost on the way to the courthouse--ok, maybe he got a little turned around. In fact, 5AM caused him to become stressed about not having the right words when he called on the phone. Sam mentioned this as an experience he personally had with an interviewee, reflecting on the impact an interviewer can have on someone with Alzheimer’s. 5AM also portrays the perspective of the interviewer, frustrated when the interview doesn’t seem to be working. 

Uploaded by Kate Brenner on 2014-11-30.

Upon first glance, Sam’s play seems to differ greatly from the other two, more traditional oral history plays. It does, by use of fictional characters instead of specific representation. The creative portrayal of 5AM as the interviewer role is also different. However, the essence of it as an oral history play stays the same: it gives a political message in a personal way. His play is not about major news events, but it aims to change the way society views people with Alzheimer’s, and that is just as political.

Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts Program and the Program in Narrative Medicine have partnered this year to present a workshop series open to the public on the intersections of oral history, health, and medicine. Join us next time.