Dorota Sosnowska

Documentation in Theater and Performance Art—Text, Recording, Medium

Angielska wersja artykułu / English translation of:

Dorota Sosnowska, Dokumentacja w teatrze i performansie – tekst, zapis, medium, w: Między dyskursami, sztukami, mediami, red. E. Szczęsna, P. Kubicki, M. Leszczyński, korporacja ha!art, Kraków 2017, s. 267–277

In early 1970s, Konstanty Puzyna launched a column in Dialog magazine called “Documentation Attempts.” As the originator and advocate of the concept of “writing onstage,”[1] itself highly controversial in that period, he felt compelled to preserve and reinforce this model of theater—taking shape before his very eyes—and draw up an analytical overview thereof. “Documentation Attempts” were supposed to function both as an archive of the present and as a sort of living laboratory. He explained his reasons and the need to take up the subject of documentation in the following passage:


Dozens of highly acclaimed performances across the world, created right there onstage and devoid of any prior literary foundation in the form of a screenplay, have made painfully clear to critics and scholars the profound anachronism of the analytical instruments at their disposal. Cornered, theater science leapt forward. […] from accounts published there [in the West], better or worse, emerge entire performances: making them visible to our mind’s eye, even if only partially, allowing us to debate their possible interpretations, classify trends, genres, directions, to write the contemporary history of theater. We have the source material, it’s finally out on the table. Why not begin doing it here, then, too?[2]


“Documentation Attempts” are simultaneously a declaration of theater science’s independence from literature study and an attempt to ascertain whether it is possible to study theater separate from drama. How can we apply the principles of scientific analysis to a spectacle which is, by its very nature, ephemeral and impermanent? Which comprises so many elements and activities? Which, additionally, is founded upon affects and interaction with the audience? Although we have “pictures, footage, tapes, technical drawings” at out disposal, all of these elements need to be augmented with a text-based account. The only way to make theater into a field open to scientific analysis, to synthetize the multi-level and multi-planad nature of the performance, is to translate theater into text. Only then will the “material [be] finally out on the table,” be available and clear. Then, it is open to classification and can be used to write history.

The initial “Documentation Attempts” were supposed to focus on Jerzy Jarocki’s On All Fours, Ariane Mnouchkine’s 1789, Richard Schechner’s Commune, Jerzy Grotowski’s Apocalypsis Cum Figuris, Konrad Swinarski’s Dziady—all of them “notable, distinguished performances; to offer those unable to see them a chance to experience them.”[3] It is striking that the archive of contemporary theater, therefore, transcends the Polish context. In the vision  proffered by Dialog, the theater of Jarocki, Grotowski, or Swinarski becomes an element of that same whole comprising American performances emerging in the context of performance art on the one hand and newly emergent performatics on the other.

In both these fields, documentation has been playing a crucial role from the very beginning—from today’s perspective, it may have been even more of a distinct feature of performance than its “liveness.” Visual artists do not need to be convinced of the necessity to document one’s own efforts. Pictures and footage have accompanied the art of performance since its very inception. Sometimes, the artistic effort itself is restricted to recording and the audience may interact only with documentation, which performance relocates to a sphere that is unavailable via direct experience. The phenomenon has been explored by Boris Groys in his essay Art In the Age of Biopolitics: From Artwork to Art Documentation[4] wherein he devises the theory of a “documentary turn” in art which posits that the artifact has been replaced by document, artwork—by action, and gallery—by a peculiar archive. On the other hand, the debate over documentation has essentially become a debate over identity for the emergent field of performatics. Michael Kirby goes so far as to consider documentation to be “surrogate performance.”[5] Documentation makes it possible to remove theater from the context of review and subjective appraisal that is inherent to the form. It is a form of the spectacle’s existence in its potentiality. It is proof that the event took place as well as the state in which the performance awaits possible actualization. Schechner, however, does not believe that a performance can be witnessed without emotion, without experience, and without requisite anthropological and sociological tools. Document is not is should never be objective, as performance cannot be distilled down into any incarnation of text—only its fragments, elements, the experience of it can be subject to description. Contemporary performatics, on the other hand, attempts to assuage the tension between action (the body) and documentation (the archive) in yet another way. Scholars such as Rebecca Schneider, Diana Taylor, and José Muñoz all demonstrate that performance itself may adopt document status, that memory and history are inscribed into flesh, that theater is its own archive. In this context, Puzyna’s gesture—of transcribing theater into text, seeing theater as art whose repetitive annihilation of its own works appoints the continuous production of history as the only method of accessing the present (thus, the archive becomes it only “present,” and the document—it’s only “today”) —seems to warrant a thorough rethinking. The fundamental question seems to be: “What should our reading of »Documentation Attempts« be?” What instruments should we use to analyze them? As a matter of fact, what these texts truly are, at their core? To answer these questions, we need to take a closer look at three concepts that comprise the theoretical framework for all deliberations defining documentation as the instrument of new theater science.


[1] Konstanty Puzyna, “Pisać na scenie” [“Writing Onstage”] in: Konstanty Puzyna, Burzliwa pogoda. Felietony teatralne [Stormy Weather. Theater Essays] (Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1971).

[2] Konstanty Puzyna, “Więc może by zacząć?” [“Why Not Begin?”] Dialog 12 (1972): 135.

[3] Ibidem.

[4] Boris Groys, “Art in the Age of Biopolitics: From Artwork to Art Documentation,” in: Perform, Repeat, Record—Live Art in History, ed. Amelia Jones and Adrian Heathfield (Bristol: Intellect Books, 2013).

[5] See: Krzysztof Wolicki, “Od czego by tu zacząć?” [“Where Should We Start?”], Dialog 7 (1973): 134.

The Document

“The only feasible form of documenting theatrical work is the documentation of a finished performance,” Piotr Piaskowski wrote in his “Notes on Recording Theater Performances,” published in the “Documentation Attempts” column in Dialog.[1] “It should comprise all meaningful elements of the spectacle and be devised in a clear and approachable manner. Additionally, it should be based on predetermined methods.”[2] Later in the essay, Piaskowski identifies all the elements that he believes should be meticulously documented: visual elements, music (sound effects), the particular imprint of the performance, production guidelines, write-ups of the acting, the audience, the informational and propaganda means, the captured footage. The documentation of the spectacle thus becomes a hybrid form—more spatial than textual. Meticulously collected information, booklets, tapes, boxed reels put away on a shelf are supposed to guarantee the survival of the performance.

In another theoretical effort published in “Documentation Attempts” Mirosława Bukowska responds to Piaskowski: “Should documentation necessarily look like Piaskowski suggests it should […]? Should it entail the meticulous collection of the entirety of the director’s output? […] such a collection is far from comprising a »snapshot« of the ephemeral spectacle.”[3] Later on, she juxtaposes Piaskowski’s notions with a practical attempt undertaken by Henryk Izydor Rogacki, who described (captured) On All Fours.[4] “The downside of Rogacki’s description was the inability to simultaneously recreate the entire multi-layered structure. In the highly systematic record designed by Piaskowski, the division of the whole into separate constituent elements seems somewhat misguided. Such an approach fails to produce a clear picture of the mutual relationships and dependencies.”[5] Later, she adds: “I am not against detailed documentation, that would go against the interest of science; what I mean is that it’s not enough to put the elements together if we do not take their particular functions into consideration.”[6]

Already in the essay following Bukowska’s, Stefania Skwarczyńska invokes Zbigniew Raszewski’s division into work documents and art documents to draw up a catalog of requisite documents that will have to be either collected or created in order to make up a comprehensive record of a performance. She writes: “The quality, amount, and trustworthiness of the data—as well as the researcher’s skill in extracting meaningful spectacle data from ostensibly irrelevant document, such as invoices for props—decide the fullness of the reenactment as well as its scientific value, the latter measured—using historical theatrical data—using the probability of its adequateness in relation to the appropriate spectacle.”[7] On the other hand, however, Krzysztof Wolicki argues:


We know now that contrary to Kirby’s assertions, description is an insufficiently objective account of factual events. Should we, therefore, follow in Barthes’ footsteps and adopt the inevitable “structural subjectivism” of categories, determined solely by the discourse’s conditions of coherence, the comprehensiveness of description, and self-awareness of subjectivism? I believe that when we describe a spectacle, we are bound by one additional condition, one that severely limits our discretion […] That condition is the presence of the viewer, the audience watching the performance. […] The description of a spectacle should also be its sociology.[8]


Subsequent authors keep invoking new requirements the account has to abide by: it needs to be objective, to include the emotions of the audience, to be created “live” during the performance with the specific date mentioned, to be written by someone with literary talent, augmented with sheet music, photographs, drawings, conjuring the atmosphere of that particular evening, to take note of every change to emerge in subsequent stagings, to bring to light both the text of the stage, the text of the audience, and the text of the theater, distancing itself from the performance itself and takes its “posthumous” life into consideration… and so on and so forth. The only thing all authors seem to agree on is the necessity to devise a common methodology that will make comparing descriptions (accounts) possible.

Thus, it becomes apparent that the function of the document that the account is supposed to become is defined from two contradictory positions. On the one hand, it is supposed to be something that was directly involved in the work on the performance or something that captures its reception and only in a very specific configuration does make up the image of the theater; on the other hand, however, it may be an original attempt to recount—in text form—the spectacle or how it looked from the audience’s perspective. The two positions are backed by two varying definitions of theater: some see theater as an institution and attempt to document the entire breadth of its activities; others believe that theater is the individual spectacle, shaped and molded by the individual reception of a given audience. In the case of the former, documents multiply into infinity, while in the latter, the account expands, trying to incorporate the thoughts of the director, reshaping itself to fit the form of the performance, and objectively capture the script, the decorations, and the methods of the acting cast. Practical applications appearing in “Documentation Attempts” range from documentation of theatrical efforts, commentary, arguments and counterarguments, to original screenplays, self-documentation, testimonials, and collections of review fragments. It is difficult to speak of consistency and comparability with these accounts. One could therefore say that in such a context, document becomes a sort of utopia—an impossible text that could replace the performance itself and save theater scholars from their perpetual failure to define the subject of their own studies. As they try to confront that challenge, accounts often morph into hybrid forms that should be read as suspended between scientific and artistic forms, between document and work of art. Some inspire the imagination, others are terribly dull. Some are no different from straightforward reviews, others resemble a meticulous registry of activities, some are original and others completely transparent. Each of these texts employs a different approach to the dream of “preserving” the theater. Read from this perspective, the documentation of the spectacle builds and deepens the radical tension between carnality and materiality of theater and the text (which the category of writing on stage attempted to abolish), eventually tipping the scales inexorably against the flesh, seen as the fleeting, ephemeral, variable, and labile element.

[1] Piotr Piaskowski, “Uwagi o zapisie przedstawienia” [“Notes on Recording Theater Performances”], Dialog 12 (1972): 150.

[2] Ibidem.

[3] Mirosława Bukowska, “Czy to wystarczy?” [“Is It Enough?”], Dialog 7 (1973): 128.

[4] Henryk Izydor Rogacki, “Na czworakach” [“On All Fours”], Dialog 12 (1972).

[5] Bukowska, “Czy to wystarczy?”, 128.

[6] Ibidem.

[7] Stefania Skwarczyńska, “Sprawa dokumentacji widowiska teatralnego” [“On Documenting Theater Spectacles”], Dialog 7 (1973): 130.

[8] Wolicki, “Od czego by tu zacząć?”, 140.

The Reenactment

(…) theater scholars—in contrast to experts in other fields—is deprived—in the face of the ephemerality of the theatrical spectacle—of direct contact with the subject of their analysis, description, and interpretation, compelling them to undertake an ancillary scholarly effort: the reenactment of a theater spectacle. They have to perform such a reenactment regardless of whether they intend to eventually present it as a self-contained academic achievement in the form of an interpreted description or use some of its elements and aspects in their further work.


– writes Skwarczyńska.[1] The actual task of the scholar, therefore, is to reconstruct a performance using all available documentation. Here, Skwarczyńska agrees with the argument laid out by Raszewski in a 1970 his essay, “Documenting Theater Performances”: “In theater studies, the reenactment of performance becomes the overarching objective of all examinations and inquiries.”[2] We should emphasize that this is about more than just the toolkit available to theater historians—every scholar of the theater has to engage in reenactment, even if the spectacle is still playing out on stage. Were we to think about it, the objective of the theter scholar is to create a text that on one hand is a record of efforts, decorations, music, the story behind the performance itself, etc., while on the other allows us to repeat the performance, even if only virtually. Reenactment, therefore, is both documentation and screenplay, both summary and opening. Raszewski argues that the only instance of successful reenactment in Polish theater studies is Jerzy Timoszewicz’s Dziady w inscenizacji Leona Schillera [Forefather’s Eve According to Leon Schiller, 1970]. Already in 1973, however, he will be involved with the reenactment of Stanisław Wyspiański’s The Wedding in the shape it was first performed in the Juliusz Słowacki Theater in Krakow. The spectacle, however, was a flop—it turned out to be surprisingly boring and in a sense closed the book on any further interest in onstage reenactment in the field of theater studies. It seems to me, however, that Raszewski’s gesture, starting from a theoretical notion and then developing it all the way to the stage, can be read as highly significant. What, then, is the essential significance of the reenactment—the ideal form of theater study? Only a spectacle can emerge from all this research, the meticulous collection of archival data, accounts, descriptions, recordings, and prop invoices. Eventually, the loop of inquiry closes and the theater scholar ends up right where they started.

Reenactment inexorably pulls documentation back into the body, and theater becomes the only form capable of its reading. In consequence, reenactment reembodies what documentation tries to translate into text. This process is the foundation of contemporary artistic practices revolving around the reenactment of classic performances from the late 1960s and early 1970s that we considered lost due to their ephemeral and fleeting nature. In light of Rebecca Schneider’s arguments, they seem to necessitate redefining performance itself: it is reconstruction, repetition, reenactment, rather than ephemerality, fleetingness, and disappearance that she believes to be the essential definitions of performativity:


The bodily, read through genealogies of impact and ricochet, is arguably always interactive. This body, given to performance, is here engaged with disappearance chiasmically—not only disappearing but resiliently eruptive, remaining through performance like so many ghosts at the door marked “disappeared.” In this sense performance becomes itself through messy and eruptive re-appearance. It challenges, via the performative trace, any neat antimony between reappearance and disappearance, of presence and absence through the basic repetitions that mark performance as indiscreet, non-original, relentlessly citational, and remaining.[3]


In this context, reenactment essentially annihilates the document, the body disturbs the stability of the archive, and theater is not “preserved,” “upheld,” or “sustained,” relentlessly persisting in repetition—sourceless and without end. In this perspective, “Documentation Attempts” seem to become one of repetition and reenactment’s many forms—even if only a potential one. This is why, paradoxically, performance was their only correct reading for the theorists of the period.

[1] Skwarczyńska, “Sprawa dokumentacji”, 129-130.

[2] Zbigniew Raszewski, “Dokumentacja przedstawienia teatralnego” [“Documenting Theater Performances”], in: Dokumentacja w badaniach literackich i teatralnych. Wybrane problemy (Documentation in Literary and Theater Studies. Selected Problems.) ed. Jadwiga Czachorowska (Warszawa: Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich Wydawnictwo PAN, 1970), 287.

[3] Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (New York: Routledge, 2011), 102.

The Documentation

What remains, however, is the question of the form of documentation, a matter that long resisted the theorists. Ironically and yet prophetically, Raszewski asserted: “Until people discover methods of screening that will allow movies to be contemplated at home, with space for handwritten notes in the margines, publicly printed director’s scripts will definitely continue to draw the attention of theater folk, theater enthusiasts and scholars.”[1] We should take a closer look at the meaning of that sentence—for a scholar, theater has to be something that can be taken home and contemplated there. Doesn’t it make the scholar more akin to an art collector. At a deeper level, it is that desire to possess a work of art that translates into the necessity of distilling it into text. The majority of theorists consider these texts part and parcel of the documentation that scholar assemble to back their theses. As Zygmunt Hübner asserts:


Video footage has obvious advantages, and we will not waste time going over them, but it has its drawbacks, too. I’m not talking about the costs, trouble with the tape, and similar difficulties, because they’re mostly transient. An acquaintance who saw Paradise Now! on videotape told me that all they can remember from the play was a lot of nudity and can’t, for the life of them, figure out what the play was about. Simply put, recording done on the spot (and it’s impossible to do spectacles based on interaction with the audience in any other way) is immediately doomed to contending with a broad margin of error (!). Traditional cinematic techniques could offer a way to avoid that, the image could be composed with much greater degree of awareness, in a more visually arresting manner, but that, in turn, would strip it of its documentary value. This is why I believe, regardless of its flaws, that taping video footage will continue to grow in popularity as a method.[2]


In conclusion, however, he asserts: “Only augmented with a textual description does video footage give a comprehensive picture of the performance, and the written word will continue to be the most available and foolproof method of documentation for many years to come.”[3] But weren’t the discussions held in Dialogue an indication of just the opposite? The written word seems extremely unreliable—subsequent attempts to create a record of theatrical performance meet with highly critical appraisals. Why can’t documentation function separately, on its own? What issue did theater studies have—and continue to have—with the video recording of performances?

Theoretically speaking, recording fulfils the dream of a perfect document. It captures every level of the spectacle, transplants meanings, preserves the details of the acting, the set design, direction, and their mutual relationships. Simultaneously, it is repeatable and comparable. It is both document and reenactment. But looking at the opinions on and reviews  of film recordings of theater performances, reading about their imperfections or even the danger they pose, one may very well think that, akin to classic psychoanalysis, the fulfilment of a fantasy has turned into the greatest nightmare imaginable. A recorded, recounted, and captured performance negates the very essence of theatricality defined as ephemerality and “liveness.” Insofar that the perfect account, giving an idea of the performance to people who haven’t seen it, remained purely notional, a dream at best, recording, by making that notion a reality, annihilates theater itself for the scholars. It seems to me, however, that we may take a different look at recording—and, from that angle, on “Documentation Attempts” themselves.

In The Archive and the Repertoire. Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, Diana Taylor formulates a concept of expanding the performance studies field to include historical and history-based inquiries. However, in her understanding of the concept, the archive—a collection of material relicts—should not be the sole medium of history and memory. The repertoire—that is the bodily practices and behaviors communicated over time and carrying the memory of the body and embodied history—should be an equally valid source for inquiries defined thusly. Taylor writes: “The repertoire, on the other hand, enacts embodied memory:[4] performances, gestures, orality, movement, dance singing—in short, all those acts usually though of as ephemeral, nonreproducible knowledge.”[5] Including theater, obviously. Importantly, Taylor does not define archive and repertoire as polar categories. She emphasizes how one permeates and overlaps with the other. Fully aware—from the very first paragraphs—of the considerable shifts produced in such broad inquiries by digital technology and the Internet, Taylor writes:


Certainly it is true that individual instances of performances disappear from the repertoire. This happens to a lesser degree in the archive. The question of disappearance in relation to the archive can never be captured or transmitted through the archive. A video of a performance is not a performance, though it often comes to replace the performance as a thing in itself (the video is part of the archive; what it represents is part of the repertoire).[6]


This brief interjection at the end seems to have tremendous consequences—the video recording becomes that which sits at the intersection of archive and repertoire, between text and body, presence and mediality. If we were to abandon seeing textual accounts or video recordings as documents and instead see in them an autonomous form, simultaneously one of the repetitions and reenactments, one of theaters many incarnations and guises, then maybe we would have been able to redefine theater itself.

Looking from the perspective of a recording sitting on the intersection of duration and vanishment, presence and mediation, text and flesh we discover that theater is media-like in nature. Moreover, as Samuel Weber points in Theatricality as Medium, it continues to question mediality as is. By engendering a dichotomy between production and reception, actor and audience, body and participant of the spectacle, corporeality and fictionality, simultaneous being here and there, theater tears down continuity, integrity, being contained-within-itself. In Weber’s words:


This irreducible opacity defines the quality of theater as medium. When an event or series of events takes place without reducing the place it »takes« to a purely neutral site, then that place reveals itself to be a »stage,« and those events become theatrical happenings. As the gerund here suggests […] such happenings never take place once and for all but are ongoing. This in turn suggests that they can neither be contained within the place where they unfold nor entirely separated from it. They can be said, then, in a quite literal sense, to come to pass. They take place, which means in a particular place, and yet simultaneously also pass away—not simply to disappear but to happen somewhere else.”[7]

Still interrogating its own nature, theater essentially becomes a metamedium, in which individual media emerge and become blurred. Records of all kinds do not comprise the documentation of a given theatrical work. Rather, they are the elements of theatricality, inscribed into the media-like nature of the theater and become one of the forms of its duration.  The performance itself, on the other hand, is not complete, is not finished. Being a process of constant emergence and vanishment, of happening and translocation, it is not subject to no archiving except for its own incessant duration—in flesh, in objects, in memory, in pictures, and in texts. There are no good or bad recordings, no proper and inappropriate documents. There is only the incessant summoning (akin to summoning spirits), the motion of memory and repetition. From this angle, “Documentation Attempts” actually are—as Puzyna wished it—the material “out on the table” and should be read both as elements of the theater which inspired it and of the theater happening here and now. The recording—this remnant of the spectacle—can be read only within the context of theater and action. It is not text, picture, film (although its shape and nature has tremendous significance for the analysis itself). It is theater living in other media and other forms. And it is precisely at this intersection—of its own form, historic context, and living theater—does it yield to analysis.

[1] Raszewski, “Dokumentacja przedstawienia,” 302.

[2] Zygmunt Hübner, “Pisanie na scenie” [“Writing Onstage”], Dialog 4 (1973): 109.

[3] Ibidem.

[4] Diana Tylor, The Archive and the Repertoire. Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 20. This particular phrase implies that repertoire is not a memory resource for the body to be replayed, but is the act of replaying itself, it is the repeating. As an act, repertoire is impossible to translate into discourse. The Polish translation of the phrase, included in the original version of this essay, implies that repertoire is something that can be subject to discursivization and eventually can become text itself.
[5] Ibidem.

[6] Ibidem.

[7] Samuel Weber, Theatricality as Medium (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), 7.