On this week’s episode of Working, Isaac Butler spoke with actors, writers, and directors Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, who are also a married couple, about their work creating documentary theater. They have written The Exonerated, about death row exonerees; Aftermath, about people who were exiled by the American invasion of Iraq; and most recently Coal Country, about the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, with music by Steve Earle. They spoke about their processes, the challenges of the genre, and the emotional toll it exacts. This partial transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Isaac Butler: What is documentary theater? How does it work?
Jessica Blank: Different documentary theater–makers work in different ways, but I can talk about what we do. We conduct interviews with people. We record and transcribe those interviews, word for word. We then bring those transcripts into a rehearsal room with actors and have the actors read them out loud, and we edit by ear. Then we go home and enter changes and bring new pages back the next day, over and over and over and over again, until gradually we start making monologues. And then we start putting those monologues up against other monologues, finding the shape of the play. So it’s like documentary film, in the sense that the primary source is not something that comes out of our imagination, it’s based directly on interviews we do with people. It’s unlike documentary film in that we then create a script from that material where the roles are played by actors.
Erik Jensen: You’re playing theatrical DJ in a way. You’re mixing different samples and bits together and a new internal meaning pops up when you do that.
What was the real-life story of Coal Country?
Blank: In 2010, there was an explosion at a coal mine in West Virginia, the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster. Twenty-nine miners were killed, but they thought several of them might still be alive for a period of time, so it was front-page national news for the week or so that it was going on. We were very moved by the story as it was happening, and it stuck with us. We had a newborn baby at the time, so we were not ready to embark on the research process for a new documentary play, but it stuck with us until we were. So in 2016, we went down to Raleigh and Boone counties in West Virginia, and we interviewed family members of miners who were killed in the disaster, as well as a couple of miners who survived it.
One challenge, I’d imagine, is getting subjects to agree to talk with you, to be confident that you’re going to take good care of what they tell you, to trust you, to open up to you, particularly when you’re interviewing them about truly horrible things that they have been through. How do you approach that problem?
Blank: We don’t try to talk to anyone who isn’t enthusiastic about talking to us into doing so. We don’t chase interviews. That’s one way in which our work differs from investigative journalism, where you’ve got to get the interview at all costs. We are very much aware that we’re talking to people about extraordinarily traumatic things. And if they say, “I’ve been through it with the media, I’ve talked about this enough, it brings up too much, I want to leave it alone,” we say, “Thank you very much. We’re sorry to have bothered you,” and we go on our way. We’re looking for the people—and we find that they are always out there—who are enthusiastic about telling their stories, where it feels like there’s something in it for them. They’re enthusiastic about having a platform or getting to speak their mind and the idea of being heard.
So first we look for those people. And then once we’re sitting in a room with them, our interviews last four to five hours. We generally go to people’s homes unless they request to meet somewhere else, but that tends to be where people are most comfortable. We think about it like a dialogue, so Erik will often share his personal experiences with people. We have different roles—I tend to sort of hold the space and create the container and sit back. Erik leans forward and shares with folks. That is an intentional leveling of the playing field—we’re not remaining invulnerable and asking them to make themselves vulnerable to us.
Jensen: It’s surprising what we get into because the interviews go on for so long and it gets so personal. I’m always surprised at how much people reveal without any prodding from me. One of the most poignant lines from Coal Country is one in which Dr. Judy Peterson describes the condition of her brother after receiving him from the mine. She felt that she needed a conduit, I think, for that message to come through loudly and clearly, and it was our responsibility to be that conduit.
I’m very interested in how you write and revise a work like this when you can’t actually change the words that people say. It’s all about cutting and arranging and the flow of ideas and structure. How does it happen?
Blank: With The Exonerated, it was pretty intuitive. We’d worked as actors and had an intuitive sense for what worked, but we didn’t know how to do it. So we transcribed all these interviews, and then we got our actor friends together in a room and had them start reading out loud, and we edited by ear. We each would have a copy of the transcript in front of us, and we would be crossing out the same things and circling the same things. We were hearing the same stuff, what was not theatrical, what was not dramatic, and pulling out what was.
Jensen: When the two of us are in a room together and it’s just us tossing the lines back and forth, themes start to emerge. The parts that are the most interesting are the parts that the public never gets to see, where Jess and I pace around for two hours and discuss what this monologue or exchange suddenly means if it’s set next to this monologue or exchange. It’s like having a jam session and inviting other musicians to join in.