From ‘Interviewee’ to ‘Character’ – A Reflection on Language and Discipline (blog 6)

From ‘Interviewee’ to ‘Character’ – A Reflection on Language and Discipline (blog 6)

For my sixth blog on the intersections between oral history and performance, I thought that I would say a few words about language. As an oral historian, I know that the words spoken are meaningful. When someone uses “us” and “them” in an interview, for example, it provides us with a good indication of who the person identifies with and against. These words can then be read as signpost, or markers. Similarly, when an interviewee speaks in terms of a collective “we” rather than the personal “I”, we understand that s/he is speaking on behalf of family or community. This sometimes changes over the course of the interview.

In the university milieu, every discipline has its own language. These words simultaneously unite those within a community of practice and exclude others who have no idea what you are talking about. When disciplines come into conversation, therefore, one of the many challenges is to find a common “working” language. A variety of accommodations result.

This has certainly been the case in our Oral History and Performance studio-seminar (notice the hyphen) this year. In the first term, and no doubt taking the lead from me, the theatre and history students spoke in terms of our “interviewees” thus privileging the interview space in which we were in. This is the language of oral history. Occasionally, I remember a theatre student or Ted Little (who is co-teaching the course with me) say “character” instead. But this seemed out of place, and I remember that character was quickly followed by a self-correction: “Oh, I mean interviewee.” Sometimes the word “interviewee” seemed forced, as though the person speaking in class had to consciously remember “to get it right.”

This semester, as we have moved fully into the performance-side of the course, the language has shifted decidedly from interviewee to character. This is not surprising. Character is the language of theatre and we are now focussed on the integration of the “verbatim text” (which replaced the “transcriptions” from last term) into performance. We are therefore putting our interviewees/characters into conversation with one another in a new story of our own creation.

Our ongoing work raises interesting questions about “whose story is it”, now that it is being staged in our workshop environment. If the interview is a “conversational narrative” between interviewer and interviewee (questions posed and answered), our performance-based inquiry has become a conversation between interviewers. To me at least, the linguistic shift to “character” reflects their absence from the creation process or conversation. If they were here, they would not be referred to this way. But, then again, I suppose the same point can and should be made about ‘interviewee’. Our interviewees were not present in our discussions last semester, either.

On several occasions of late, I have heard some of the history students begin to refer to their interviewees as “characters” only to correct themselves. It is the same ‘correction’ as last term, except now it is going the other way. It has become an assertion rather than a concession. For me, at least, I still find the word “character” to be jarring. These are real people who shared their stories with us. To me, a character is someone who exists only in a story or on stage. As a result, it seems to cross the imaginary line between “non-fiction” and “fiction.”

Now, I am quite sure that I feel this way because my discipline of History has invested a great deal in the realism of the work that we do. The line between “fact” and “fiction” is jelously guarded. In the 1990s, I remember some great debates about the “value” of historical fiction. The high-point, for me, was Margaret Atwood’s energetic defence of historical fiction. In an article re-published in the American Historical Review, she made the case that authors of historical fiction are able to evoke the past and transport us back in a way that traditional historians could only dream of. I loved her piece. It is for these very same reasons, perhaps, that I am so much enjoying the creative work being done by students in our classroom. Not unlike a research paper, these are their interpretations.

Cheers, Steven