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Outside In--Working on stage docudramas

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There are two important things for actors to realize about working in stage docudrama: (1) The way you develop your character (or, in many cases, your multiple characters) will probably be radically different from what you're used to; and (2) you may find yourself bonded with your character in such a way that representing him or her respectfully is paramount--your actor's ego is virtually subsumed.

A genre made popular by Anna Deavere Smith's solo work of the past few decades--and seen lately in Eve Ensler's enormously successful The Vagina Monologues, Moises Kaufman's Tectonic Theatre Project work, Mark Wolf's solo show Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Culture Clash's recent work, Roger Guenveur Smith's A Huey P. Newton Story--docudrama involves a writer/director (who sometimes also performs the piece) interviewing subjects on a particular theme, using audiotape and/or videotape. The material is transcribed, whittled down, organized, and workshopped. Finally a verbatim script emerges.

For Black Sheep/Encore Theatre Company's San Francisco world premiere of I Think I Like Girls (an hour-and-40-minute play about the lives of lesbians in America), writer/director Leigh Fondakowski recorded 50 interviews, two to five hours each, on audiotape and videotape. (Fondakowski was also one of the main writers on Kaufman's The Laramie Project, about the effect the brutal anti-gay murder of Matthew Shepard had on the ordinary citizens of Laramie, Wyo.) Five women not only played the 20 roles but also participated actively in creating the piece.

Among the Girls ensemble is New York-based Kelli Simpkins, who is also in the cast of The Laramie Project. For the latter, she worked with audiotapes, transcripts, and Polaroid photos of the characters she played: a young lesbian activist, the boy who found Matthew Shepard, an older rancher, a Texas woman, and a young reporter named Tiffany. The project was workshopped at Sundance. "We listened to the tapes over and over," said Simpkins. "We talked to several of the people who had conducted the interviews." On that project, actors, too, conducted some interviews. "Everyone came to the work in a different way. But once you hook in or connect with your characters, you kind of fall in love with them."

In fact, Simpkins was so concerned with representing her characters accurately that she initially went overboard, and, as she explained, "The actor/character dynamic became a little blurred for me." For example, she was persistent in trying to capture one character's high-pitched giggle, and it took her a long time, plus repeated suggestions from the director, to start believing that sometimes the interviewee's precise physicality doesn't serve the play and the moment.

In a similar vein, in playing the young man who discovered Shepard, she found that the audiotape of his interview was fairly flat and too reflective, which didn't translate theatrically. Simpkins eventually realized she was relying too much on the tape and needed to use her imagination to create the moment when the young man, riding his bicycle down the mountain, found the body. "I had to trust that I was being responsible and respectful with my presentation," she said. For Simpkins, responsibility and respect were overriding concerns in both projects. Fondakowski noted that actors in docudrama tend to have an extreme sense of ownership of their roles.

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