Going the Distance: An Interview with the Playwrights
Eustis, Oskar, American Theatre
OSKAR EUSTIS: What began your history with documentary theatre?
JESSICA BLANK: Erik and I started dating when I moved to New York to start acting school; he had been here for several years as an actor. I took him to a death-penalty conference as a date--he likes to joke that it was early enough in our relationship that he'd say yes to anything! There was a workshop about a group of cases called the "Death Row 10," who had all had confessions tortured out of them, and were all still in prison, though many of them had no other evidence against them besides these "confessions." The organizer set up a speaker-phone conversation between us and one of the guys in prison. He didn't say anything much more complicated than "I miss my family and I want to go home," but by the end of the call we were crying.
ERIK JENSEN: It was at this conference that Jess and I started talking about documentary theatre. I had seen Emily Mann's Execution of Justice at the Guthrie when I was maybe 15--
BLANK: --and starting about the same age, Anna Deavere Smith became a big influence on my thinking.
JENSEN: The problem we wanted to solve was how to avoid creating bad, beret-wearing, fist-in-the-air political theatre.
BLANK: The experience of hearing that phone call inspired the idea for The Exonerated: to go around the country and interview people who had been on Death Row and who were innocent. The ethical debate about the death penalty gets so polarized. We were looking for an opening to talk to people from all different points of view.
BLANK: We were a couple of actors who taught ourselves to write a play in order to write that play. Neither of us imagined when we started out that it would have the life it's had.
JENSEN: We began to call it the Exon-and-on-and-on-erated. (Laughter.)
Where did the idea for Aftermath come from?
JENSEN: Jessica and I consciously decided to take a pause after The Exonerated. We didn't want to capitalize in a cheap way on the play's success.
BLANK: I think it would have been easy for us at that point to just apply the same methodology to another weighty subject. We wanted to find something that was equally important in terms of subject matter, but that would also give us the opportunity to evolve the form we were working with. I was talking to Jim Nicola of New York Theatre Workshop and he said, "You know, there really hasn't been any work made in theatre about civilians in. either of the conflicts that our country is engaged in." Erik and I have a friend, Maria, who works for Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, and we had talked a lot with her about the issue of Iraqi and Afghan civilians and how we don't hear those stories at all.
JENSEN: There is such a massive filter between us and the people whose personal tragedies we have a hand in--personal victories too, perhaps, but after talking to these people I think it's mostly tragedies. The media is afraid to cover these stories because it humanizes them too much. If images of Arabs don't fit the recycled model--women keening for someone who has died, angry Arabs shouting at cameras--then you don't see them on television.
BLANK: When Jim said, "We'd support it if you wanted to write a play about that," Erik and I realized that here was an opportunity to sidestep the endless ideological divisions and speak to people on a human level about something that's going on politically. And it allowed us to take another step formally with documentary theatre because of the whole language issue. We didn't speak any Arabic--how the hell are we going to do this? It was such an interesting process, working with a translator to conduct interviews in which you're looking for people to open up the most intimate parts of their lives.
The way you use Arabic in the play is different than I've ever seen on stage before. You're using it both for what we understand and for what we don't understand. …