Ain Gordon, a playwright, director, and actor, is co-director of the multidisciplinary platform Pick Up Performance Co(s) with his father, David Gordon, and was visiting artist at The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in 2014–15.
Real people imagine “unreal” things from reality. Artists use themselves. Is there a fixed tipping point from there to documentary self-labeling in performance? I am no live-art scholar. I am a maker and consumer better equipped to “document” my own negotiation with autobiography, history, public story, and “documentary” forms in performance.
My parents raised me to interject my heart/brain into the space between what actually happened and all means of conveying it past its living moment. Here’s our archetypal scene: mother returns from rehearsal to say “how it was.” Father interrupts, “That’s how you feel it was.” She turns away: “That’s how you feel about how I feel.” Immediately a moment is documented for transmission; it’s on a growingly fictive journey from actuality to story.
During frequent solo visits with my grandparents, they told/retold/debated/altered their own histories, growingly peppering them with ancient fragmentary scandal. Inside these crumpling grandbodies stood the other, younger, taller, lustful, more dangerous people they had been. They multiplied into cubist self-portraits. The morphing/contradicting “facts” in their self-authored documentaries further trained me; I cannot accept a tale that proceeds without tangent, says it all out loud, and doesn’t question its own veracity.
So, I use “real lives” in live theater. I use research but question the existence of immutable fact (don’t want to be wrong, doubt “right” is available). I’m not interested in facts everybody has; to get what isn’t known, I might imagine. I seek out marginalized/forgotten histories of lives that have left enough trace to tantalize and been enough lost to offer me unbound permission. I want to do what I want. I do not believe theater audiences come for a documentary. (Unless the artist calls it that, which I never do.) To quell my (occasional) fear of absconding with “facts” by embedding them in fiction, I build in kinks to destabilize the theatrical authority. I check my moral compass to determine what liberties aid my script—aid truth—make visible what is true—question what has been held as true—question the notion of truth—question theater as another conveyor belt of time-based consumption that forces concision, which means total truth is not on offer.
My great-aunt fell and broke her hip, entering a slow-mo health-care purgatory. I became her caretaker, and my life disappeared into hers. Desperate, I wrote down our conversations. Then I wrote them with improvements (“It’s better if she says . . . ”). Then I made stuff up. Then the real great-aunt said, “I feel bad, you doing everything for me.” I said, “We’re gonna trade. Everything you say here belongs to me. If you don’t want me to have it, don’t say it.” These real/improved/made-up pages became The Family Business, a collaboration with my parents, David Gordon and Valda Setterfield. My great-aunt died, but we continued performing words she did and didn’t really say in cities she would never see.
I’ve also honored/plundered/distorted/preserved the following scant documentable facts, embedding them in things I made up: the first free African Americans to build their home in Lexington, Kentucky (In This Place . . . ); the Galveston, Texas, hurricane/flood of 1900 (A Disaster Begins); the last woman to be executed by hanging in New Jersey (Public Ghosts—Private Stories); and the inner life of the nineteenth-century socialite Mrs. Astor (Wally’s Ghost).
Ain Gordon and David Gordon, The Family Business, 1994.
Ain Gordon, Art, Life & Show-Biz; A Non-Fiction Play, 2002.
Ain Gordon, In This Place . . ., 2008.
Ain Gordon, A Disaster Begins, 2009.
Ain Gordon, Public Ghosts—Private Stories, 2002.
Ain Gordon, Wally’s Ghost, 1996.
Spalding Gray, Sex and Death to the Age 14, 1986.
Ann Carlson, the “Real People” series, 1986–.
Ann Carlson, “Animals” series, 1988–.
Susan Rethorst, 208 East Broadway, parts 1–5, 2006–13.
Horton Foote, The Orphans’ Home Cycle, 2009.