Jessica Blank is one half of the writing team who conceived, developed, researched and crafted Aftermath, a documentary play which is currently playing at the Malthouse Theatre as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Erin James spoke with Jessica about the play, it’s development, and it’s impact on the theatrical world.
Jessica Blank is one half of the writing team who conceived, developed, researched and crafted Aftermath, a documentary play which is currently playing at the Malthouse Theatre as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Erin James spoke with Jessica about the play, it’s development, and it’s impact on the theatrical world. “There is something very special and profound that happens in the immediacy of theatre, when everyone in the same room sharing the same experience in a moment together is coupled with the knowledge that what you are seeing onstage are real people’s stories spoken in real people’s words” – Jessica Blank. Jessica Blank, American playwright, actor, director and creative genius is one of the most eloquent women I have had the pleasure of speaking with. Her passion and fervour about the arts is evident in our 15 minute interview, and despite being on opposite ends of the earth with a crackly phone connection in between, I hang on every single word she says. Jessica and her husband/co-writer Erik Jensen created a documentary style play called The Exonerated, first performed in the USA back in 2002, based on interviews they conducted with exonerated death row inmates in America. The whole process of writing this play, Blank says “literally changed our lives forever”, and thank goodness it did – or we would never have the wonderful play Aftermath on our doorstep for this year’s Melbourne International Arts Festival. “After The Exonerated, we knew we wanted to do another documentary play, by we wanted to wait for subject matter which would be compelling and but challenge us to use a different form”, Blank explained. After a breakfast meeting with the Artistic Director of the New York Theatre Workshop (and a chance discussion on the glaring omission in the American theatre world regarding work written about the effects of wars on civilians), a seed was planted, and the journey towards Aftermath began. “There had been some work made from the perspective of American soldiers, though I think one could argue that there wasn’t enough… There was work made from the perspective of the policy makers, but nothing from the perspective of ordinary citizens who just happened to live in a place where war broke out”, she said. Aftermath is another documentary play, directed by Blank and co-written by Jensen, based on interviews with Iraqi refugees. The play reflects on the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq though she insists that the story is more universal:
“The impact that war has on civilians is something that we have been grappling with, as human beings for a long time, and unfortunately will be something we continue to grapple with far into the future. This play is not to do with just the Iraq war, it’s actually about war in general and what human beings do to each other in any war”, she said. With this meaty topic in mind, and after securing a grant to write the piece, Blank and Jensen were heading to Jordan in Oman to conduct interviews with up to 40 Iraqi refugees. Interviews were conducted with the help of translators and Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), whom Blank says were “Amazing. They were incredibly helpful in introducing us to a wide cross section of the Iraqi refugee community in Jordan”. In her easy manner, Blank explained the difference between traditional playwriting and documentary style theatre writing: “Writing a conventional play is like making the painting on a blank canvass. Writing a documentary play is like carving a statue out of marble. There is a mass of material that already exists, and our job as playwrights is to find the shape inside it and bring that out.” In their case, the ‘marble’ was transcribed in Iraqi Arabic, translated word by word into English and handed out to actors to workshop. All the characters in the play are real people, not composites, (with the exception of the translator character, who is a composite of three different people the team worked with when they were conducting the interviews), and basically every word spoken in the play is taken from the refugees themselves. As one can imagine, every single refugee had a compelling story to tell – sometimes a story of loss, sometimes of hope – but always deeply moving. The challenge for Blank and her husband when writing the play was choosing which characters to include in the work and which to leave on the ‘workshop floor’. “When you’re dealing with material which is so compelling and everyone has a story that is worth telling, it can be very difficult to narrow it down”, Blank explained, “but Erik and I are both actors so our writing process is very much focused on actors”.
“Once we had those raw transcripts in English we brought them in to a group of actors (many of whom are in the cast which is performing in Australia) and we literally asked them to read them out loud. We edit by ear as we go along… enter our edits into the computer that night, and come back with a condensed version for the actors the next day. We would then read it and workshop it all day, and we would repeat that process until monologues star organically emerging from the material”, she said. As the material becomes more clearly defined, it is easier to hear which stories double up, which characters have personalities that are close enough to each other that it feels redundant to have both of them on stage. It also becomes clear which stories help serve the bigger picture.
“When we did the interviews, we received a profound education on the larger story – not just the individual stories. In this case it was what happened with the American invasion of Iraq and the aftermath of that, and what it did to regular people on the ground”, Blank said.
The play contains multiple stories, and each one of them represents issues and events that we heard repeated in multiple stories – be it the loss of a family member, of being unjustly suspected and imprisoned or vilified and threatened by a militia. Because the play deals with such heavy material, Blank explained that it was also necessary to look for both the poignant and the anecdotal, the stories which contain humour balance out the tales of despair.
“in selecting stories, we are trying to create a work of art that feels balanced artistically, and is also a balanced telling of the larger
stories”. Given that the majority of Australians and Americans (with the exception of those who were in New York City on 9/11) have no personal experience of what it’s like to be in a war zone, this play is certainly an eye opener, and a necessary one at that. It is clear that despite being a novelist, an actor, a screen writer and director, documentary theatre is certainly a medium about which Blank is very passionate. “It has an incredibly profound effect on audiences so, it’s a medium we plan to continue working in for many years”, she said. Without giving too much away, Blank does indicate that the world will be seeing another documentary play from this team in the not-too-distant-future:
“It’s very early times, and we’re not talking about it just yet”, she says, with a hint of a smile in her voice. I have no doubt it will be as thought provoking and as relevant as Aftermath and as my warning buzzer rings in my ear to signal ‘time’s up’ on my interview, I ask Jessica one final question: Where next?
“We are hoping to take Aftermath to the Middle East”, she said. The theatre world is different over there, I know, but gosh, I hope the show makes it. This is what we call changing the world, one show at a time.
Malthouse Theatre, Merlyn Theatre Tue 11 – Fri 14 Oct at 7.30pmWed 12 & Fri 14 Oct at 2pm1hr 30min no interval Priced from $25 – $55M-TIX (03) 9685 5111 / malthousetheatre.com.au Ticketmaster 1300 723 038 / www.melbournefestival.com.au