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Documentary play asks, “What does it mean to both make a living and create a life?”

big work - theatre company

Kate Marple, Human Services Alumni and Current Lecturer

I went to graduate school in Scotland, and not once in the time I lived there, did a single person ever ask me what I did for a living. Not on campus. Not in the pub. Not at tango class. The idea of getting to know someone through the lens of the job they did seemed utterly foreign, even offensive to the people I met. I found it stark, and I found it liberating. Suddenly, it was acceptable to tell strangers about the things that interested me or mattered most to me. I didn’t feel my value as a human measured by how I earned a paycheck.

Coming back to the United States was a bigger culture shock than leaving had been. I still didn’t know exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up (I still don’t), but the pressure to know only felt more acute. On top of that, I was turning the page on a long chapter of illness, one where I had lost myself and hidden inside my work as a way to stay safe and busy. When I came home, I wanted to try so many new things. I wanted to be so many new things. But almost the second I stepped off the plane, the questions were all focused back on work. I was always being asked about the destination, never the journey.

Part of why I had gone to Scotland in the first place is because it is one of only two places in the world where you can get a Masters in Nationalism Studies, and I am perpetually drawn to questions of belonging. When I came home, my best friend—an actor and theatre artist—introduced me to documentary theatre, where you interview people and take their verbatim words and other source material and pull it together into a form of dramatic storytelling. It is a marriage of journalism, qualitative field research, and theatre. I was instantly hooked. It brought together everything I loved—interviewing people, trying to make sense of big questions, searching for connections and themes between what people are experiencing, and human storytelling done in an environment where the people listening can also connect with each other.

My friend and I started a small theatre company, and our first documentary play explored the relationship people have with their jobs and how it informs the big questions of life and purpose and identity. As we interviewed people across the country, the play quickly blossomed into a larger conversation about how we as human beings both make a living and create a life. Distilled from hundreds of pages of interview transcripts, that play, Big Work, is a modern day meditation on the American Dream and how we define success and ourselves in the 21st century. 

We were lucky enough to perform the play with our original cast here in Boston, and then in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 2016 and 2017 before recording it as an audio drama. As we’ve moved on to other documentary projects, we got an unexpected gift in early 2021 when we found out that Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina had selected the play for its spring production. The university has cast and produced the show under the direction of Dr. Lindsay Weitkamp, but we’ve had the chance to be visiting teaching artists this semester and engage with the cast and the campus community about documentary theatre and also about this theme of what it means to make meaning with your life. Perhaps the biggest gift of all is that the cast decided to go out and conduct their own interviews about this topic to see what their communities are thinking and feeling. What keeps me so invested in documentary theatre is the cycle of asking, listening, connecting, and trying to make meaning together.

The themes in Big Work somehow feel even more relevant in 2021 as we continue to create lives that feel meaningful in the midst of a global pandemic. The play is an invitation to reflect on how our identities have been transformed by the incredible loss and change of this historical moment, and to reimagine who we are and who we might be moving forward. We will emerge from this pandemic, but what will we go back to? What are we never willing to go back to?

Because of the pandemic, Lenoir-Rhyne’s production of Big Work was recorded (with masks and without a live audience) and is streaming for free on YouTube from March 17-24, 2021. You can watch it here.

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