Researchers of documentary theatre search for learning experiences with a societal impact

The multidisciplinary initiative Journalistic documentary theatre as a point of contact between the artistic and the societal, funded by Kone Foundation, has recently been launched at the University of Tampere. Anssi Männistö, professor of visual journalism, and his colleagues will investigate how the artistic and the societal aims of theatre and journalism are brought together and fulfilled. One of the researchers involved is Pauliina Hulkko, the recently elected professor of theatre work. I spoke with Männistö and Hulkko about the project on 5 April in Tampere.

The research project uses case studies to focus on the entire workflow of documentary theatre: how journalistic material is converted into manuscript and performance, and how knowledge is formed in the process. “I am very excited that we are bringing about a ’collision’ between journalism and theatre,” Männistö says. In his view, the University of Tampere provides excellent opportunities for such an initiative, because according to the university’s strategy it creates “world changers who understand the world”.

For the uninitiated Finn, it might seem that documentary theatre is all about everyday politics, and is based on documentary materials such as protocols and records. This is because the most publicised productions of documentary theatre in Finland have been the City Council (Valtuusto) and Parliament (Eduskunta) plays. However, there are numerous possibilities for theatre to enact everyday reality, and a common English term for the phenomenon is theatre of the real. Historically, the phenomenon dates back to at least the 1920s, when Erwin Piscator produced plays in Germany, but even notably older forms of theatre could be categorized under documentary theatre, or theatre of the real.

Like other forms of theatre, documentary theatre has multiple ways of finding its audience: moving image, events that involve ordinary people on the street, the internet or tablet applications, in other words, many opportunities to make the audience participate. Männistö mentions an example, Näkijä/tekijä (Watcher/Doer) produced by Mikko Kanninen and drama students from Tampere, based on a novel by Hannu Salama. The actors assumed a journalistic attitude and set out to investigate troubling social issues in Tampere. “This new project will also have an impact on the teaching of theatre work and journalism,” Hulkko promises.

But how can documentary theatre influence decision-making in politics, for example? Männistö and Hulkko stress that it can bring the decision-makers to the fore in the discussion and make the underlying factors of the decisions more visible. There is, of course, a risk that issues could become personalised, and if the characters are made into caricatures, this could ruin the image of decision-making and a cynical attitude could easily take over.

One of the project’s central research questions is how journalists and makers of theatre work together on the same subject. Some evidence to help discuss this is provided by the recent project to create a biography about Björn Wahlroos. The book was the result of a successful collaboration by students of journalism under the direction of visiting professor Tuomo Pietiläinen. The launch of the book was accompanied by a documentary theatre performance, which was even written about in the tabloid newspapers. Männistö argues that if this collaboration took place now, the co-operation between journalists and documentary theatre makers would begin earlier. It is interesting to hear how his position echoes the experiences of other research projects funded by Kone Foundation which have included artists. It might sound obvious that cross-boundary collaboration produces better results, the earlier the collaboration starts. But this is still not always taken into account in research projects with a traditional structure which employ artists only in the final phases to illustrate the results.

“The boldness of the initiative lies in the emancipation of the makers and students, as well as the different types of audience, when the eager flame of research and art illuminates the future,” says Männistö with infectious enthusiasm.