Clooney plays attorney David Boies, watched over by Brad Pitt’s Judge Walker in ’8′
Few issues have divided the Californian electorate like the now ubiquitous Proposition 8, an amendment to the state constitution which effectively banned same-sex marriages and nullified the legality of existing partnerships. The battle before and after voting on Prop 8 was fierce, both those for and against the proposal launching campaigns costing tens of millions of dollars.
A key moment in the debate surrounding the issue was a 2010 court case: Perry v. Brown (formerly Perry v. Schwarzenegger). The original idea had been to televise the case, giving the voting public access to the debate. It would have been the first federal trial to be filmed and shown live, streamed in public courthouses and on YouTube. However the Proposition’s defendants secured a Supreme Court ruling against the broadcasting of the trial, leaving the public to follow the case through the refracted lens of the traditional media.
However, this is California, and so unsurprisingly the story did not stop there. Last week a live streaming of a new play ’8′ took up the anti-Prop 8 baton.
The play, available to watch on Youtube, boasted a star-studded cast including George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Martin Sheen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jane Lynch, Kevin Bacon and directed by Rob Reiner. However it was not the combined glamour of the play’s cast that caught The Bureau’s attention. What was interesting about the production is that in many ways it represents a new form of factual story-telling: theatrical journalism if you will.
The play’s script is made up, predominately, of actual records of the trial. The audience is told in the introduction to the show that ‘the Supreme Court blocked plans to broadcast the trial… but the transcripts of this trial could not be hidden… These are the words, the witnesses, the testimony and the trial the defenders of Proposition 8 have fought so hard to keep from public view.’
As the narrative of ’8′ unwinds the audience is taken inside the courthouse and given a front-row seat to the landmark trial. Excepts from witness statements and the closing arguments are played out, with actors treading a sparse set, many sitting centre stage under a simple spotlight to represent their place on the witness stand. Kevin Bacon plays the steely-faced defence council Charles Cooper while Sheen and Clooney take on the roles of the prosecution David Boies and Ted Olson, all arguing their cases with passion and conviction.
Beyond using court transcripts artistic license is wielded in interplays between plantiff’s Kristin Perry and Sandra Steir, a same-sex couple, and their children. Here the play shows its campaign colours, the young boys are shown reacting to the defence’s statements that children outside opposite-sex marriage are not legitimate, we see them worrying about their home lives, and in one moving segment one son talks about his pride in his mothers.
However, the emotional wrench of these scenes complicates the purpose of the play: namely a means to give the public access to the goings on of the court. If this is ‘theatrical journalism’ then the scenes between mothers and sons are editorialising.
Indeed, it was this kind of emotional pontification which was dissected in the actual trial. The plantiff’s attorneys were later listed in the 2010 Time 100 for the strong legal approach they took to challenging the Proposition. Their scientific and measured picking apart of the pro Prop-8 argument, that same-sex marriage is a threat to opposition-sex marriage and procreation, revealed it to be based on opinions and bigotry rather than factual accuracy. Attorney David Boies states it poetically when he says ‘we put fear and prejudice on trial.’
The main issue with the play comes from its very nature. It is a theatrical work and while it professes to use court testimony it necessarily cuts and pastes. We see expert witnesses for both sides flounder on the witness stand, but it is certainly those all for Prop 8 who are portrayed as the bumbling fools. John C. Reilly and Jane Lynch put in great comic turns as anti-same-sex-marriage ‘experts’, but the given archetypes of the theatre makes it too easy to paint them as the hapless bad-guys.
The notion of using performance to explore and report on real-life topics is a complex one. Artistic creations are by their very nature subjective, however one could say the same is true of several news media in the US. By playing out the court transcripts for around 90 minutes the goings on of the trial are reported in a much fuller way than could be covered in a television news slot, or even a long-form article. The play, which was posted on YouTube last week has received over 450,000 hits. Potentially this is a means of reporting events to an audience who may not consume the news another way.
The play is undoubtedly an anti-Prop 8 campaign tool, but it does represent an innovative means of reporting on complex issues. Using actual recorded testimony in the mouths of actors the audience is given a deeper, more emotional insight that any traditional news coverage could provide.
After the play ends the actual plantiffs and attorneys make their way on to the stage to be cheered beside their theatrical-doubles. Anti Prop-8 attorney Boies takes the mic and tells the audience the play has been a form of ‘poetic justice’ given the defence tried to keep the tapes of the trial from the American people.
In real life the endings to stories are not so neat. In the Perry v. Brown case the judge overturned Prop 8 stating it contravened the US Constitution. The case moved through the appeals courts and there is currently a stay on the ruling meaning no marriages can take place pending further appeals.
Time will tell whether these subsequent appeals are televised. If the alternative is high-profile stars reenacting proceedings the defence might be best advised to let the cameras roll.
Watch the play ’8′ online here.
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