UM drama students collaborate with oral history project to devise documentary play
By Bess Pallares
Before you can tell someone’s story, you have to listen. This seemingly simple act is the basis of a recently published play researched, devised and performed by UM drama students.
The play, “Listen/Éist,” started with six students in UM Assistant Professor Bernadette Sweeney’s documentary theater course during autumn 2011. Sweeney, originally from Ireland, was the founding director and currently serves as a researcher for “The Gathering: Collected Oral Histories of the Irish in Montana.”
The interdisciplinary project of UM’s Irish Studies Program collects the stories of Montanans with Irish heritage and connections. Though the oral histories are preserved through audio and sometimes video and archived at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, Sweeney had grander, more dramatic hopes from the start.
“From the very first day, the first interview I did, I realized what great theatrical potential this project has,” she says.
Sweeney previously taught theater studies at University College Cork in Ireland, and says documentary theater — a format that uses real-life information like interviews or news clippings to develop a script, preferably without altering it — is quite popular in Europe. With a wealth of information from “The Gathering” and access to UM’s bright young dramatists, the stage was set for Sweeney to see that theatrical potential come to life.
Cohen Ambrose, a graduate student at UM pursuing both a master’s in performance theory and criticism and a master’s of fine arts in directing, was one of the students in Sweeney’s course. Though he didn’t know the topic of the course going in, he previously had performed in the well-known documentary theater production “The Laramie Project,” which explores events and reactions surrounding the Matthew Shepherd murder.
In “Listen/Éist,” Ambrose performs the part of Bob Whaley, a local Vietnam veteran whose great-grandfather is from Tullow in County Carlow, Ireland, about a 15-minute drive from where Ambrose’s wife grew up.
That sort of surprising connection is not uncommon in “The Gathering,” and it’s something the students experienced firsthand because, with the exception of one, the students performed their own oral history interviews rather than working with existing archives.
Great stories exist in the archives, but Sweeney has learned that each oral history has the potential to be great. The process also allowed the students to interact with their characters in a way they normally can’t.
“Imagine if you were an actor playing Hamlet, and you were able to go and interview Hamlet,” Sweeney says.
From a three-hour interview with Whaley, Ambrose distilled 10 minutes of material that speaks to the Irish-American experience, which for these people simply is the American experience. Whaley was born in Missoula in 1935, his family roots connect to Butte and back to Ireland, he remembers playing games as a child during World War II that entailed defending Bonner Park from the Japanese and Germans, and as an adult he entered the real war in Vietnam.
“‘The Gathering’ questions are geared toward Irish heritage and family history,” Ambrose says. “All of them try in some way to link back to the Irish element. Oftentimes, it’s the stories the individuals tell about their own lives that become the most vibrant.”
Ambrose never had conducted a long interview before. Sweeney coached students in her course and discussed the interviewing process, teaching them to listen without interrupting so they could hear the whole story.
Through listening, the students were able to absorb the power not only of the stories, but also of the silence in their interviews.
“I was able to translate that into my own work as an actor and director and really rediscover, I think, how powerful the connection between two performers is, or a performer and the audience, and how much silence can help to forge that connection,” Ambrose says.
Each student selected their interviewees, bringing their personal experience and personality into the process. Leah Joki used an interview she previously had conducted with her grandmother and added interviews with her mother, sister and niece; Rebecca Schaffer interviewed two women and devised separate monologues for the play; Sam Williamson, Anna Dulba-Barnett and Ambrose interviewed one person each; and Reid Reimers developed his more musical segment from an interview Sweeney previously had conducted.
“Each of the students took a very different approach to the material they had in hand,” Sweeney says. “It gave us the opportunity to create something very different for each.”
Through the class, Sweeney worked with the students to structure the play. Most chose to deliver their pieces in one chunk, while Ambrose elected to perform the part of Whaley in seven intervals, including the play’s opening and close.
“I was afraid it was going to become a monologue play that didn’t highlight how all these people are interconnected,” Ambrose says. “What happened is that Bob’s story became an arching through-line that helped to tie the other pieces together. I don’t think it stood out as more important — we could have done that with any of them — it was just having one that had a common thread that all these people shared, which was adventure, bravery and homesickness.”
The flexibility in the format alludes to the unique nature of documentary theater. Different stories need to be told different ways, even within the same script.
“Part of our work as interviewers and in documentary theater is listening, but as an actor you have to listen,” Sweeney says. “You have to listen to what your fellow actors are doing, you have to be in the moment, absorb the sense of the audience.”
During the play, each actor sits on stage in a traditional monologue format, and photographs, video clips from their interviews and sound effects punctuate the performance.
The play debuted in the Masquer Theatre at UM in December 2011. It was performed again during the lead up to St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Butte the following March and also last spring on campus during the official script launch.
With the support of Jerry Fetz, former dean of the UM College of Arts and Sciences, the script was selected for printing by the University of Montana Press. Five-hundred copies were produced last spring and are available for purchase at The Bookstore at UM.
Most of the students involved in researching, creating and performing the play have graduated and moved on, and Sweeney has no plans to stage another production of “Listen/Éist” soon. But the printed script provides an opportunity for future productions, and she hopes to see it performed again someday, even in different incarnations with new interviews.
“These are only the stories of 10 people,” Sweeney says. “‘The Gathering’ has more than 170 interviews recorded now, and you could create a theater piece out of any of them.”
The special quality in the oral histories is not just in the strong connection between the Irish and Montana or inclusion in “The Gathering.” The stories, like Ambrose says, are unique in the way they interconnect and reflect a larger experience, but you have to take the time to listen.
“Listen/Éist” was co-edited by Sweeney and Dulba-Barnett and produced with the support of the UM Press, the UM College of Arts and Sciences and the Irish Government Department of Foreign Affairs Emigrant Support Program. “The Gathering” continues under the directorship of Bob O’Boyle. Visit http://mtirishgathering.org/ for more details.