Real-life dramas: 10 great documentaries about theatre

Phyllida Lloyd’s 2012 Donmar production showed what Julius Caesar gains from a prison setting. This documentary from the same year, directed by the brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, goes a step further. It follows a colloquial staging of the play by inmates at Rome’s Rebibbia prison who have their own experiences of murder, betrayal and vengeance. “It feels like Shakespeare lived in the streets of my city,” observes one. The world of play and prison bleed into each other: sometimes you’re not sure if they’re speaking lines from the drama, discussing Shakespeare or reflecting on their lives. The camerawork and compositions are brilliantly judged, with architecture caught from striking angles, and the whole prison functions as a set as we see the men rehearse lines going about their daily lives. The final line about the liberating quality of culture is devastating: “Since I discovered art, this cell has become a prison.”

You would call it an unhealthy obsession if it didn’t bring Steve Young such evident joy. Young is a devotee of one of the weirdest corners of theatre history: “industrial musicals”. These shows, with huge casts and original tunes and choreography, were a common feature at conventions and sales meetings in the 1950s and 60s. Huge corporations such as McDonald’s or Xerox would commission them and they would be performed for employees, not the general public. Young (a former comedy writer on David Letterman’s chatshow) in this 2018 film tracks down the song-and-dance stars who created these tributes to Oldsmobiles and refrigerators. Some, such as Susan Stroman and Sheldon Harnick, became Broadway legends; others remained in this lucrative niche market and seem genuinely touched to learn of Young’s passion for their creations.

It had all the makings of a hit. Stephen Sondheim thought it a “swell idea”; Hal Prince never felt more sure of success. But their 1981 show Merrily We Roll Along bombed on Broadway, closing after 16 performances. What went wrong? Original cast member Lonny Price looks back in his 2016 documentary and talks to the main players – including Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander and James Weissenbach, who was replaced as lead actor after the disastrous first previews. The cast open up about how its failure affected their careers. The show told a story of friendship in reverse, starting with jaded characters in middle age and moving back 25 years to their more optimistic selves. There is a neat symmetry in seeing those actors now, in their 60s, alongside archive footage of their auditions and even a recording of Sondheim playing a tune at Price’s birthday party. It’s a bittersweet film: you feel the deflation when the show closes – and the elation at a triumphant reunion concert in 2002, by which time Merrily had established itself as a neglected classic.

For seven years in the 1970s, the Space in Cape Town was living proof of the power of protest theatre. It boldly presented urgent plays that challenged the structural racism of the apartheid regime and used theatre as a “weapon for change”, as one of the interviewees in Mark Street and Dan Poole’s 2019 documentary puts it. Narrated by James Earl Jones, the film captures how it felt to run the theatre (with no subsidy, constantly scrutinised by the South African police’s special branch), what it was like to act there (as remembered by John Kani, Richard E Grant and others) and the electric atmosphere of the audience (where, as on stage, segregation was defied). The productions, including Athol Fugard’s international hit Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, are brought to life with archive material and memories from the Space’s co-founder Brian Astbury, playwright Fatima Dike and Fugard who warns that theatre-makers must always remain vigilant, wherever they are working. A compelling study of a political theatre that not only reflected the headlines but made its own.

Wynn Handman was told “it takes a lunatic” to run a not-for-profit theatre. But in 1963 he opened the American Place theatre in a former church in New York, with a mission to make it a bastion of experimental and fiercely original plays unafraid of thorny subjects such as Killer’s Head by Sam Shepard and George Tabori’s holocaust play The Cannibals. Directed by Billy Lyons, Kim Ferraro and Seth Isler, this 2019 film splits its focus between Handman’s work as artistic director there and as an acting teacher. Former pupils paying their dues include Michael Douglas, Alec Baldwin, Richard Gere and James Caan, who did odd jobs in lieu of fees. Handman is praised for respecting the vulnerability of young actors and giving them courage. “Ballast yourself in reality,” he taught, “then throw yourself into the sea.” The American Place stood out for its commitment to diversity at a time when US theatre was very white and very male. Dael Orlandersmith, Frank Chin and John Leguizamo are among those sharing memories and we see Handman, who died aged 97 in 2020, working closely with students in his last years.

In a makeshift rehearsal studio, a group act out the roles of refugees in familiar scenes of desperation, threat and prejudice. But these novice actors are real asylum seekers and it is their darkest experiences of escaping war and danger that are being revisited in a light-filled room in the Israeli desert near the Egyptian border. In this 2016 film, documentary maker Avi Mograbi and theatre director Chen Alon hold a series of workshops with people from Eritrea and Sudan who are held at the Holot detention centre. Together they create a play that will eventually tour across Israel. Filmed unobtrusively, with some poetic flourishes, the group’s lengthy improvisations explore power structures and power games, and it is striking to see the refugees try out the roles of dictators and the authorities.

“In this village, things have to change.” So says one of nine Turkish women, all first-time actors, putting on a free play in a primary school to give voice to their experiences of injustice. Pelin Esmer’s 2005 documentary follows the women as they shape the script with a teacher, shop for props, do their own marketing and have an opening night bust-up that threatens to derail the show. Along the way the women weigh up the roles in which they have been cast, on and offstage, and talk openly about the violence they have suffered, inequality and their aspirations for younger generations. Theatre has a transformative effect not just on the women but on their families. All the benefits of drama – including agency, empathy and self-expression – are evident, along with hands-on debate about the ethics of theatre drawing on real lives.

Not everyone knows the name Michael White. Without him many wouldn’t know the names of some of the 20th century’s greatest artists. Gracie Otto’s 2013 doc was sparked by her chance meeting with the maverick producer at Cannes; she speaks to him about his career which is documented through star-studded personal photos and talking heads from Barry Humphries, Naomi Watts, Anna Wintour and Michael Billington who calls him “a mini Diaghilev of the permissive society”. White had a keen eye for talent, an open mind and an international outlook: he brought Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch to London, took Dame Edna to New York, turned Rocky Horror into a sensation and helped break UK theatre out of the draconian grip of the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship. An inveterate party-starter, he wasn’t averse to risk and there are painful lows among the highs. It’s the story of a shy boy from Glasgow who was taken to the ballet by his mum and the horse races by his dad and who made his spectacular career out of artistic gambles.

Every village has its dramas but Monticchiello (pop. 136), in Tuscany, has been using its residents’ lives as the basis for theatre productions in its piazza for decades. The ancient mountain village used to put on classic plays but developed its own form of “autotheatre” created by its ageing inhabitants. Unfolding at a stately pace, Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen’s 2017 film looks back at their past plays, documents their current production – about the local economy and “the end of the world” – and considers the future of the tradition, which looks shaky when the younger villagers would rather play football. A glorious celebration of amateur theatre and a unique community.

What if someone who had never been to the theatre was paid to watch – and write about – every new production in their country over an entire year? That’s the position in which Alissiya finds herself in Marta Pulk’s 2019 film which follows her to venues all around Estonia as she participates in an experiment to determine what a huge dose of art does to an individual. Alissiya finds herself alternately frustrated, upset, enthralled and inspired by the whopping 224 productions she crams in. At times we fear for her wellbeing as she considers her place in the world with remarkable frankness. Her experiences in the stalls are relatable: from the glumness of sitting through a comedy that everyone but you finds funny to the jolt you get from seeing a character whose personal dilemmas mirror your own. A gripping individual story and an insightful portrait of a country and its theatre.

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