Documentary Theater From Interviews to Final Production
S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.
S2: Whenever we embark on a new documentary play, we’re looking for subject matter that gets at issues that we believe are really important for us to be grappling with as a nation where the conversation often gets polarized. Right. Or stuck in this kind of binary framing. That’s a place where we can start a conversation that could unite folks that would ordinarily think they would totally disagree with each other. Welcome to working.
S1: I’m June Thomas here today with Isaac Butler, who had a fascinating conversation with documentary theater makers Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. But first, Isaac, you composed a beautiful piece of deadline prose earlier this week when playwright and polemicist Larry Kramer died. And I found your piece really moving and honestly impressive in how quickly it was written. You talked about Kramer’s work and his style, his contribution to American life. So he helped change the way LGBTQ Americans are treated. And it was beautifully written. And as someone who has had to do that kind of writing myself, I have to say I was really jealous because beautiful and fast don’t often or even usually go together. Had you been gathering string for that for a while?
S3: First of all, can I just say I really appreciate your your kind words for the piece. I did write it very quickly and maybe three hours. And so I have no conception of whether it’s well written or not on some level, you know, like it just sort of went through me and then onto the Web site. So, I mean, it got edited and everything, but you know what I mean. Yes. This is, I think, the third piece for Slate that I’ve written in response to an artistic hero dying. The first one was about Sam Shepard. The second one was about Ursula Gwynne and now this one about Larry Kramer. And all three of them are probably the fastest written pieces of professional writing I’ve ever done. I think when you love an artist and you’ve encountered a lot of their work and thought about it and Kramer’s case actually taught it, you’ve gathered all that string already. It’s already gathered. It’s in some warehouse in your mind. And it’s just a question of how to, like, open that warehouse door and start tugging, you know? And for this one, it actually started as a thread on Twitter about the normal heart. Larry Kramer’s 1985 play about the founding of the gay men’s health crisis. And Brian Louder approached me. You know, he had read the thread and thought it would make a good piece. And so I already knew what the pieces heart was. And I also knew that it couldn’t be a million words long. And so I didn’t feel a duty to talk about everything. You know, I knew the sort of couple of big things I wanted to say. And when you know that, you can fold a lot of stuff in there pretty quickly. I am always really going to be most interested in talking about the work and more interested in talking about the work than the person who made the work. And how that worked out in the piece on Larry Kramer is actually, if you look at it again, there’s very little about his life in it. It only has exactly what I needed to be able to talk about. His essay, 1112 and Counting. And his play The Normal Heart. But because his persona was so outsized, the work becomes a way of talking about him and vice versa. I will also say, though, just because, you know, the emotionality of writing comes up in our episode today that I also, you know, every two or three sentences would take a break and walk away and cry a little and then come back, sit down and keep writing. So it was it was very painful on some level, but I was also very happy to do it.
S1: Yeah. I mean, I have to say, if I felt that emotion, I felt that you you meant it. You know, you were feeling that thing. It was it was it felt very genuine. It’s funny, though, to me, when you were just describing the normal heart. You said it was about defending of the gay men’s health crisis and. You and I know that’s true, but that’s not in the play. They don’t mention the gay men’s health crisis in the play. I don’t believe. But today we are going to be hearing your conversation with Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen, who really write plays that are not just about the real things that are being talked about, but using the real people’s words, documentary theater. And it’s fascinating. I really cannot wait. But I just mentioned two names. That’s two people. Who are they?
S3: Yes. So Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen are true hyphenates. They’re actors who’ve been in everything from high maintenance to The Walking Dead. Eric is currently on the 50 Cent produced ABC show for Life. He was this kind of Alex Jones, SC conspiracy theorist on Mr. Robot. They both write and direct for TV and film. They recently co-wrote and co directed a really beautiful fictional movie called Almost Home about homeless teenagers in Los Angeles. But I wasn’t actually talking to them about any of that. Weirdly, I was talking to them about this other creative career that they’ve sustained over the past couple decades, which is as documentary theatre makers together. They’ve co-written and Jessica has directed several shows that weave together interviews, court documents, you know, et cetera, for the stage rather than for the screen. And the recent show, Coal Country, about the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in 2010 and its aftermath opened at the Public Theater in New York right before Cauvin, 19, closed all of New York’s theaters. So I just thought it would be really interesting to talk to them about their work and their kind of unique process, but also because their work engages so directly with the world. I was really fascinated by what it was like to have the world impact and actually suspend the work that they were doing. Indeed.
S1: Well, I’m really excited to learn more about documentary theater and how they worked together. Let’s take a listen.
S4: I am here today with Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen. Together, they’re the writers and Jessica’s the director of Coal Country, a documentary theatre piece with music by Steve Earle that recently premiered at the Public Theater. Jessica, Eric, welcome to the show. Thanks for having us. What actually is documentary theater? How does it work?
S5: Well, different documentary theatre makers make it in different ways so I can talk about what we do. We conduct interviews with people which we record the audio of and transcribe those interviews word for word. We then bring those transcripts into a rehearsal room with actors and have actors read them out loud and edit by ear and then go home and enter changes and bring new pages back the next day over and over and over and over again and tell. Gradually we start making monologues and then we start putting those monologues up against other monologues and 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. Right. 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.
S6: And you’re sort of playing theatrical D.J. in a way, you’re kind of like mixing different samples and bits together and and a new internal meeting pops up when you do that. Mm hmm.
S4: And so what was the specific real life story of coal country? Well, what was the subject matter you were exploring with that one?
S5: So in 2010 in West Virginia, there was an explosion at a coal mine called the Upper Big Branch mine disaster. It was a national news story. Twenty nine miners were killed, but several of them they thought might be still alive for a period of time. So, you know, there was there was front page national news for the week or so that it was going on.
S7: And we followed the story and were very moved and impacted by it as it was happening, actually. And it stuck with us. We had a newborn baby at the time that had happened. So we were not at that point ready to embark on the research process for a new documentary play. But it stuck with us until we were. And so in 2016, we went down to rally in Boone County 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. Mm hmm.
S4: And so how do you choose the subject matter that you’re going to explore? I mean, obviously, it’s stuck with you for a while. You know, your two previous works are the exonerated, which are about people who’ve been exonerated off of death row and aftermath, about people who were exiled by the American invasion of Iraq. You know, there’s certain themes that unite them, but they’re very different in many ways. What makes you know, this is the thing we’re going to devote a substantial amount of our time and money to exploring and making a piece out of.
S6: Well, the for me, the thing about coal country that struck me when we were watching interviews with family members of these 29 miners who were killed. You know, I saw the hope in their eyes. I saw a lot of fight. I saw a lot of bravery. I saw a lot of fear. And but I just couldn’t shake the whole time as these images of these 29 men flashed across my TV screen and it listed their hobbies or things they like to do or whatever, how similar they were to men in my family. Mm hmm. You know, they were men who worked with their hands. They worked for a living. My family started off working poor and scrabbled their way up to the working class. My grandfather was a mechanic who never graduated past eighth grade. He was a farmer for a while. Two failed farmer worked his big machinery, not as dangerous as coal mining, but still a very dangerous job. I knew a lot. A lot of farmers missing thumbs and stuff like that growing up. But I understand rural life and I understand how tight knit those communities are. And so when I saw a community that resembled the, you know, a little town of 8000 people that I grew up in, I was immediately drawn to the stories. I felt they were very important. And I feel for for the most part, with a few exceptions, Broadway and off Broadway usually get working class bleep people wrong because the writers who are writing it are not from the working class.
S7: And I think in terms of, you know, what might unite the subjects of coal country and exonerated and aftermath, I think, you know, whenever we embark on a new documentary play project, we’re looking for subject matter that gets at issues that we believe are really important that for us to be grappling with as a nation at whatever given point.
S5: Where the conversation often gets polarized, right, or stuck in this kind of binary framing. Right. So, you know, coal is another issue where there’s a sort of right left red state, blue state argument about like, is coal bad or is coal not bad? Well, what if we talk about the fact that a coal is running out and B, the incredibly brave miners who have devoted their lives, who are not making energy policy decisions. Right. Right. Who have devoted their lives to getting the fuel that powers all of our electricity or a lot of our electricity out of out of the middle of a mountain, don’t have safety protections and aren’t being looked out for by the owner, the billionaire and multimillionaire owners of these companies. That’s a place where we can start a conversation that could unite folks that would ordinarily think they would totally disagree with each other.
S4: You know, one challenge I am I’d imagine, and maybe I’m completely off base about this, but with your work in particular, is getting subjects. Getting them to, you know, agree 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, you know, truly horrible things that they themselves have been through and asking them to open up about it. I was just wondering how you approach that problem.
S7: You know, we start with the principle that we don’t try to talk to anyone who isn’t enthusiastic about talking to us. Mm hmm. Right. We don’t chase interviews. And that’s one way in which our work differs from investigative journalism. Right. Where you gotta get the interview at all costs. Right. We don’t pursue people if they say, you know, we are very much aware that we’re talking to people about extraordinarily traumatic things. And if they say I you know, I’ve been through 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 there 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. Right. So first we look for those people. And then I think, you know, once we’re sitting in a room with them, I mean, our interviews last like four to five hours. We generally go to people’s homes unless they request to meet somewhere else. But, you know, that tends to be where people are the most comfortable. And we don’t think about it really like a typical journalistic interview. We think about it like a dialogue and like an encounter that’s happening between us as human beings. So, you know, Eric will often share more about, you know, his personal experiences with people.
S5: Like we have different roles, a little bit like I tend to sort of hold the space and like create the container. I sit back. Right. And and Eric leans forward. Right. And shares with folks. Not that I don’t also. But I think, you know, and there’s something in that that is an intentional leveling of the playing field. Right. Like, we’re not remaining invulnerable and asking them to make themselves vulnerable to us.
S6: 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 what I’m always surprised at how much people reveal without any prodding from me at all. You know, some of the most poignant lines from coal country, you know, one in which Dr. Dr. Judy Petersen describes the condition of her brother after receiving him from the mine.
S8: That was an unbelievably difficult moment. When she talked about that, she felt that she needed a conduit. I think for that message to come through.
S6: So it would come through loudly and clearly. And, you know, it was our responsibility to be that conduit. You know, it’s hard to have experienced these stories for these families. It’s harder than anything. Maybe maybe the maybe the third hardest thing I’ve ever experienced, other than tragedy myself is carrying stories for other people, especially when they entrust you with them.
S4: What is the process like for you both, I suppose, to kind of manage the emotional toll that carrying the story takes?
S6: Well, it’s weird because it’s kind of a double edged sword for me during our writing of coal country. You know, I talked about feeling a relationship to these men who died like they could have been my uncles or my cousins or, you know, I could have been I could have gone fishing with any one of those.
S8: Guys in the middle of writing this play, which has a lot of grief in it. You know, my uncle and my dad died within two weeks of each other. Oh. And I’ll be honest with you, that was, I don’t know, six or seven months before we opened that that happened and my work on the play, I didn’t unders really understand what we were working on until I felt that compounded loss, because then I just felt that times twenty nine families and my heart just burst open. I mean, grief is hard when it’s one person, you know, but when it’s twenty nine men and the number of families, the hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands of people that that affected that love those men, my heart just burst open. So I’m like, oh that’s what that’s like. Okay, I’m going to come to the table and write from there, you know.
S9: I mean I could speak as your wife. Yes. Because my ex. Because my wife. There’s no secrets here.
S5: I’m I’m married to a true empath through a highly sensitive empath. And and it’s interesting, actually, looking at the sort of different ways constitutionally each of US processes carrying these stories. I see the weight of it on Eric, as were doing the work, because he he is so sensitive and so deeply empathetic. And and so, you know, when we’re in the middle of a workshop where we’re working, when it ends, he usually sleeps for several days. Like, it affects his mood. Sometimes he cries. Right. Like nightmares all night. There’s a whole way in which he’s, like, really processing it all on a very personal, empathic individual level. You know, like I was saying, turn in terms of our roles and the interviews. I’m sort of by nature, I’m like a space holder. And so there’s something constitutionally where I just feel it’s not that I’m not empathizing and it’s not that I don’t feel those stories, but there’s something about like holding space for them that feels natural to me. Mm hmm. And it’s not that it doesn’t affect me. It does. But it’s not it doesn’t feel personally emotionally difficult. And I think maybe one of the reasons for that also is because our job is to take this thing that happened to take the raw material of these stories where something terrible happened and to turn them into something that hopefully has beauty that can transmit the lived experience of the people who spoke to us, to audiences. And I really deeply believe that when audience may have seen it over and over and over again, when audiences receive a story fully that they know is a true story and they receive it emotionally, that something changes. Right. So to me, like I take refuge in my sense of responsibility in that process.
S4: One thing obviously we just talked about is that the two of you are a married couple. You have a 10 year old daughter. So I’m just sort of interested in how you create a structure for, you know, the creative work and your personal lives when it all involves the same people.
S8: Oh, Jessica loves this question, Jessica. Energy.
S5: I mean, there’s like a little part of my brain, maybe not so little. That’s like a stage manager, a production manager and a first lady, like, all rolled into one. I’m like a huge organization. Schedule time management person like my Ike. How is like Tetris? Right. So I, I, I get a sense of satisfaction from that kind of organizational work as long as it’s. I’m also doing other things and being creative and all of that. So, you know, I try to run a pretty tight ship in terms of the structure of our work life and our family life. And we kind of have to because we’re both like, so hyphenated. Right. Like, we’re both we direct together on camera. I direct our plays. We’re both actors. Eric is on a TV series. We write documentary theater. We write for TV. Like we have a million things. I coach and teach. Right. So we have a million things and we’re parents. So none of that would be manageable if it weren’t laid out in a color coded and geometrically satisfying way.
S4: Does that include, like, mean like when you’re working on Coal Country recently, for example? Does that schedule be like this is the. Our when we will talk about script and, you know, and then the rest of the time were were were parents or, you know, whatever it is, it did get like that.
S8: But, you know, we’ve also worked together so long. I know I can hand Jessica a page of like eight notes or 10 notes on something and leave rehearsal two hours early and come back so I can I can, you know, be a stay at home dad and and parent. Right.
S5: Right. And I trust him to do that. Right. So there’s yeah. We we there’s a lot of trust where we can hand things off to each other. And a lot of shorthand also. So not everything has to be discussed. And we’re like that sometimes when I’m with the more conventional stuff we write, like we will outline everything together and break the story together. And then one of us takes what we call the bad draft, which is the draft before the first draft. And then one of us takes the first draft and then we’ll hand off drafts together until we get it close to looking like how we want to how we want it to look. And then we’ll work on it together. Right. So we’re comfortable sort of passing the baton to each other, which I think helps a lot.
S6: But life is definitely a first draft. And we’re we’re trying to work out this new, you know, sort of stay at home coronavirus thing now cause you’re still making things through all this, right?
S5: Oh, yes. Yes. Well, so, you know, coal country. All I do want to say closed because they’re hoping to bring it back. Right. But all of the theaters closed suddenly. Right. So we had just opened like a week earlier. Right after a couple of weeks of previews. So that happened very suddenly. And so you and very much midstream as the play was, have a lot of momentum was happening around the play. So a lot of my work work this last week and a half has been just working to ensure the future of the play and talking to the public theater every day about what their plans are and what they know. Talking to, you know, people about potential film versions, potential audio versions. Right. Like just kind of figuring out how we can keep this story moving forward.
S1: All right. We’ll be back with more of ISIS conversation with documentary theater makers Jessica Blanke and Erik Jensen after this.
S3: One of the things we’d love to do with this show is help solve your creative problems, whether it’s a specific challenge about your work or a big question about inspiration and discipline.
S10: Send them to us at working at Slate dot com. If and when we can, we’ll put those questions to our esteemed guests.
S1: Welcome back to Working. I’m June Thomas for this week’s episode. Isaac Butler spoke with documentary theater makers Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen about the process, collaboration and how they balance their work life with their lives as married parents. We rejoined the conversation with a discussion of the nuts and bolts of their creative process.
S4: So 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, you know, because, you know, when you want to rewrite something into a pithy line of dialogue, you can just like toss a joke back and forth and then figure it out. But here it’s all about cutting and arranging and you know what the flow of ideas and structure are. I’m just wondering, you know, how does that happen?
S5: That’s interesting. I would say with the exonerated, it was pretty intuitive. Right? We actually we didn’t know how to write a play when we started working on exonerated.
S8: So, you know, well, you know, I was actually attending. You know, he’s still with us. Thank God I was attending a lot of readings for Arthur Kopa, the playwright. And I just he was coming ARQ he was teaching at the Lorik.
S6: And we were just and I both were coming in and acting for them, you know, in little scenes and seen Lence and stuff. And so, like we did that at the lark for, like, I don’t know, six or eight months or something like that. And unbeknownst to both of us, we were getting writing, training like, you know, Edward Albee came in one day and, you know, gave me a great piece of writing advice that I’ll never forget. He said, you know, when you’re writing a play through through two characters in a room, see what happens. Avoid the obvious and do the inevitable.
S9: That’s good. Yeah. You know. Yeah. So I was like, all right, I can take that to my grave.
S5: You know, so we had absorbed this and and we had also absorbed a lot just from both being actors. Right. So when we started working on Exonerated, we had a bunch of that intuitive background. But in terms of just like how do you do it? We didn’t know. So we got we transcribed all of these interviews and then we just got our actor friends together in a room and had them start reading outloud. And we edited by year. And thank God we found that immediately we each would have a copy of the transcript in front of us and we would be like crossing out the same things and circling the same things. And so there was something where like we were hearing the same stuff. We were hearing what was not the article. It was not dramatic and pulling out what was. And it was always story. Right.
S6: It’s sort of you know, it’s sort of like being in a jazz band or a jam band or something like that because like, you know, when you’re when the two of us are in a room together and it’s just us tossing the lines back and forth, like themes start to emerge. You know, the the the parts that are the most interesting are the parts that kind of the public never gets to see or jazz. And I pace around for two hours and discuss, you know, what what this monologue or or exchange suddenly means if it’s sat next to this monologue exchange. And it’s it’s like having a jam session, you know, and then inviting other musicians in to join, you know, and, you know, especially with the subject matter of coal country, it being in Appalachia, you know, we wanted somebody to come in who had some KRED who understood that kind of music. And I couldn’t think of anybody better than Steve Earle, so.
S4: Right. Right. You have a sort of structure and a way of working in place that you’ve invited a third collaborator who’s, you know, the greats. He was a firecracker.
S9: Yeah. Yeah. Who has his own process. Right. So. And you know how that works. So, yeah. How did that work. Yeah. Thanks. I said I got my question.
S5: You know, we went to the three of us, went to West Virginia together and he was there for about the first half of the interviews and then he had to go on tour. I mean, he then later came back to West Virginia several times to the area when he would play dates around there. And so, you know, we had the same we had a sort of shared formative experience of the place and have many of the people together. And then, you know, Eric and I went into our process, which, you know, that experiment with the exonerated of like let’s call in some actors and ask them to read the transcripts out loud and start editing by year we found really work. So we’ve actually preserved that. And we work in developing our documentary scripts. We work very heavily with actors like what you can hear just by hearing things out loud, like would take ages to figure out on the page. Right. So, you know, we edit the transcripts down into monologues. We go through this crazy process where we then put each monologue, some of which are very short. Right on its own piece of paper. Then we spread them out on the floor and we get up on a ladder and we like move them around and see what different orders do. And then we hear the actors read those. Right. And we, like, mix it right. So we went through a couple of workshop phases of that until. The script started getting pretty clear it had a shape and then we had a series of dramaturgical meetings with Steve and with Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the public, and talked about where the songs wanted to go and what I wanted to do.
S6: And like I said, you know, these aren’t edicts. These aren’t marching orders or blueprints or anything. But this is the feel. What do you think of the feel, Steve? And Steve Kim pack like weekly with a new song or a second song or third song in all of them were frickin masterpieces. Like, I don’t know, like if he threw anything away to get there, like.
S11: But I want to hear even the stuff that he left on the floor to get to where he did with us on the ground.
S5: And we should say to his album is called Ghosts of West Virginia. And it comes out, I think MI 20 s Granite’s seven songs that he wrote for the play, plus three more that aren’t in the play, but that are about West Virginia and the region.
S4: So when you’re doing those initial you know, working through the material with actors is you’re starting to whittle them down into monologues and stuff. How much material are you actually working with? The first time an actor is reading something like how big is the thing at that point?
S5: Obviously, it’s this thick. All of the transcripts together, it’s pretty thick. It’s probably probably each one, I would say is like a single spaced thirties.
S8: Oh, well, yeah.
S5: I guess if it’s single spaced, something like that, 30 out, 30 or 40 and then.
S6: And then ready. Then the real stuff. But the real that the real thing are the court documents and depositions and and and all of that stuff and judgments and rulings. And you know, IMSA reports and the governors report. I mean, those you know, you’re talking tens of thousands of pages of material.
S5: You know, we, you know, trial. We did a workshop with the legal documents from this. That was like really specifically focused on that. And with that one, we were probably working with about 50000 pages of material.
S4: Wow. And you whittle that. I mean, that final result is how long how long was the running time of the show? 90 minutes ride to the final result is you’re whittling that down to a 90 minute show.
S5: Yeah. It’s really, really, really condensed and distilled. All right. And I think that’s a lot of what our job is, is to like get just as SNC as we possibly can with everything.
S4: Once you’re actually in workshop and especially in production, Jessica, you become the director of the show. So how do your roles shift at that moment? How does the process change?
S5: I tend to give my actors a heads up at the beginning that we’re married and we are used to inhabiting a lot of different creative roles with each other and that they might hear directly from Erik in a way that they might not, especially early in the process, in a way that they might not be accustomed to hearing from a playwright. Like he might talk because he is also a director and he’s a very of the two of us. He’s a very visual thinker. Right. Then as the thing as the piece took shape and sort of became what it was and was more formed and became more really a matter of refining it and working with the performances and doing this sort of deep one on one work with the actors, then Eric would start stepping back, coming in for part of a day like and I start running things. Yeah.
S6: And I also felt I was there to hold space to remind everybody in the room when the sillier seasons of rehearsal set in, as they always do with the play. I was always there to remind everybody that this play is about 29 men who can’t speak for themselves. Right. And that we’re we’re their voice.
S4: Right. And, you know, part of the challenge, it seems to me, in that is that the actors are playing real life people who, you know, depending on which documentary theater process it is, they either have or have not ever met. Right. And I guess in your actor’s case, they didn’t know the people they were portraying. And that’s overhand. Yeah. And so how were you shaping those performances within that context? Because I assume it’s not like you want them to do an impression of the person.
S6: And we didn’t show recordings to actors either. We really wanted the words to work if the words weren’t doing their job. We felt we weren’t doing our job. If the words weren’t enough. If something had to be layered on in order to make it come to life, we felt we were doing our job. And it’s amazing to how much of our physicality in our language, in our our internal rhythms and external rhythms are carried in our language. That’s the other thing.
S5: It’s really amazing. I mean, we discovered that for the first time when we are workshopping exonerated because we had these like scrappy little workshops where we would call whatever friends of ours were free that day. Right. Different people every day to come in and read these transcripts with us. And, you know, so what that meant was that a lot of the people were like not correctly cast. Right. Like reading people that were totally different age type, whatever. And what was crazy is that we saw that no matter how incorrectly cast they were, people would pick up the gestures and the body language rhythms of the real people just by reading their words. Right. And so that clued us in really early on to like, OK, even as were editing, even as we’re shaping, even as we’re hacking away and crafting and distilling and all of the stuff that we’re doing with the language, we have to keep the rhythm of how people actually speak because it carries everything carries so much of our psychology. And so, you know, a lot of times when we do these plays, people want to like they want to do lots of research and they want to watch video and they want to listen to the audio and all of that. And we’re always like everything you need is in the words. And if you actually play like several people with this play, I was like, we would be in rehearsal, I’d be like, do it like Shakespeare, play it on the language, play exactly the punctuation that’s on the page. And they would do it. And then they’d be like, Oh.
S4: There’s a lot of thematic resonance between your show and the moment that we’re living in right now. The show was going into previews and opening right as this crisis was unfolding. As you were watching that unfold. What were the echoes? What were the rymes between these two situations that were occurring to you and that you’re thinking about now in the in the aftermath of it?
S7: You know, the UVB disaster was a situation in which, you know, this. So this part of southern West Virginia was one of the most heavily and loyally unionized places in the country. Right. This was like deep union territory where people had shut shed blood to unionize. Right. And that union loyalty was very, very deep. And Massey Energy, which was the company that owned you, Bebe, was responsible for d unionizing the area in the 90s. And that’s part of the story that the play tells. Right. Because you can’t actually, I don’t believe that you can talk about the U.B. disaster without talking about unionization. Right. So you have a situation where there’s this regulated industry and unions and people have fought very hard for these protections. And it’s a very dangerous job regardless. But there are structures in place that are meant to protect ordinary people. Right.
S5: And then you have a period of years where those regulations and those protections are systematically and intentionally dismantled in pursuit of profit. You know, we heard these guys talk over and over about how they were told to keep they they were raising the alarm about, you know, this infrastructure that’s supposed to protect us is not here. It’s not working. There’s safety violations. We don’t feel safe. And they were told to keep running coal. Right. They were being told to show up and keep going, even though the systems that had been put in place initially to protect them had been dismantled. And I think, you know, this is a really this UVB is an example of it.
S7: And now we’re seeing it on a national level that when you take apart these structures, when you take apart the regulations that are meant to protect people and meant to preserve some kind of safeguard, at a certain point you get to a moment where all it takes is a spark.
S5: All it takes is a new virus. All it takes is one small thing that is part of the natural world and it can run rampant and create tragedy on a pretty huge scale.
S6: I think the people who experienced this horrible tragedy at UBC have a lot to teach us about resilience, about staying brave, about staying true to your loved ones, even when they’re gone, you know, and about and about fighting the powers that be and raising your voice when you’ve had enough. Like, I think we’re I think all of those things are going to be in play now over the next couple of months. And, you know, I’m tired of fighting fair. You know, I want to fight loud and durry because what’s happening what’s happening to people is unconscionable. What’s hap the way people are being treated right now is the is the end point of a philosophy that I believe is corrupt and wrong and values money more than human life. All of the things that the Greeks warned us about your hubris, you know, all of that stuff preceded this, you know, but thank God for Steve Earle. He got he got me through.
S4: Well, Jessica. Eric, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your many different processes with us. It was really great to talk to you. Thanks for.
S8: Thanks for having us. Will. Come on anytime you want.
S1: I think that was such a great conversation. And it has given us so much to talk about. I really, really sad that cold country is closed at the moment. And I hope it reopens because as a daughter and granddaughter and all the many more generations of miners, I really want to see it. Documentary theater is a fascinating way of getting information to people in a compelling form. I’ve been a fan of some documentary plays. I’m a big admirer of David Hare’s and The Permanent Way, which is a play about a British train accident. Let’s just pause for a moment. A train accident and the factors that led to it is really a great play. And I don’t think I’ve ever read a piece in a newspaper about transportation subsidies and actually finished it. So that proves to me that that’s a good way of getting like complicated stories in front of people. But at the same time, I hated his play Stuff Happens, which is about the run up to the Iraq war, because to me, that felt like a rerun. I’d already seen everything that was happening on stage in the news. And I also was really getting into judging how well the actor was impersonating that person. The accent was all wrong, that kind of thing, which gets in the way of the message. Have you found documentary theatre compelling as theatre?
S3: Oh, yeah, I love documentary theatre. I should say when it’s done right and just gone. Eric are very good at doing it. You know, one of my first jobs when I came to New York was with a van. New documentary theatre company called The Civilians. And I like documentary theatre. I teach some plays from that can. And I think there’s a particular power in hearing someone’s real words. But in the heightened way that happens when it’s a work of life theatre, the tension between those things I think is really fascinating and can be really productive. I think it probably works least well, as you mentioned, when there’s sort of impressions of people going on. Right. And most well, when it’s really an actor creating a role. But I do think that it poses some really clear artistic challenges beyond that, like how you arrange the material or that you can’t really have, like, dialogue in the normal way. And there’s also this peculiar way that usually in documentary theatre, the relationship with the audience is a little bit different. The actor is repeating things that an interview subjects said to an interviewer, but they’re usually looking out at and directly addressing the audience. So the audience becomes in a weird way, a stand in for the interviewer, even though they’re not saying anything. And so the relationship between the performer and the spectator becomes very different. At the same time, if you can turn those challenges into strengths, if you can make them feel like inevitable parts of the thing you’re creating. I think it has a unique power, really.
S1: I was really struck to by their process of taking interviews and turning them into a play by listening and cutting and shaping and listening and cutting and just kind of repetition. And that image of Jessica and Eric on a ladder, looking down at the pieces of paper that the monologues have been printed on. I mean, that will stick with me for a while, because it also is a reminder that this and really a lot of art is really a major feat of organization as well as being art.
S3: Oh, yes, absolutely. You know, I’m also reminded of what Meghan Abbott said about kind of arranging the story beats on note cards to get your TV season right. Whether you’re working in fictional work, nonfictional work, prose, TV, whatever, you know, structure is your friend. Structure is really important. And that importance is only heightened when you take away the other normal tools you’re used to having. Eric and Jessica can’t invent things. People said they can’t invent people. They don’t they don’t have those tools at their disposal. But I also think that’s an interesting thing to think about if you’re working on a creative project. You know, if you couldn’t change anything but how the pieces of it were arranged, what changes would you end up making? I think it leads to some really interesting answers.
S1: Yeah, no doubt. I was also fascinated to hear about Eric and Jessica’s collaboration, which given that their partners in work and life and creativity and parenting, everything basically really does seem like a lot. I think those of us who are partnered, most of us are spending more time than usual with our significant others and realizing what that means more than ever. You’ve been a co-author, not with a romantic. Ana, but still, do you have any tips for people who are collaborating on a creative project? What should you not do? If you want to maintain your relationship with your collaborator, I’m really glad you asked you.
S3: Because actually think about collaboration a lot. And I think that a lot of the answer, this question are the same, whether you’re talking about a romantic or creative partnership. And of course, romantic partnerships are creative. The life together is the thing you’re creating. Right. So there is this phrase we use in theater a lot, what it wants to be like. Often when you’re talking with a set designer, you’ll talk about the set. You’ll be like, well, what it wants to be is this as opposed to what I want it to be. Is this an and that can sound kind of cutesy, but I actually think it’s voicing this thing that is deeply weird, but also deeply true, which is that when you collaborate with someone on something in life or in work, you are creating something that actually exists separately of the two of you. It’s it’s a separate entity in some ways, and it sort of has its own once and its own needs. And your job is to listen to it and to give it those things and to be generous to your collaborator and to the thing that you are creating. At the same time, and if you can do that, not only will the process be more fruitful, but unexpected things will start happening. There are actually a lot of decisions we made with the world only spins forward that felt like on some level the book made them for us like there was no other option and we didn’t even really discuss it. And weirdly, one of them is the book’s most fundamental creative decision, which is that it’s an oral history. Neither Dan nor I have any memory of how that decision was made. It was just always going to be that. It always seemed like the right thing.
S1: Isaac, I find that very inspiring, of course. This podcast is also a collaboration. You and I are talking now. Our wonderful producer, Cameron Drus, is always supporting us and helping us through. So, yeah, I feel that makes sense. I often think what does this episode want to be? So that’s a great thing to ruminate on.
S12: And speaking of this episode, this episode is now over. If you enjoy this show, please consider signing up for Slate plus Slate. Plus, members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. And you’ll be supporting the work we do here on working. It’s only thirty five dollars for the first year and you can get a free two week trial now at Slate dot com slash working plus.
S1: Thank you to Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen for being our guest this week. An enormous thanks to our producer, Cameron Drewes.
S12: We’ll be back next week for June’s conversation with public radio journalist turned food YouTube to Adam Raguse. Thanks for listening. I’ll get back to work.