It is essential for an actor to be a ravenous researcher to truly portray the raw emotion of another’s tragic circumstances. UNC’s Drama 85H- Documentary Theatre course presented freshman students alternative methods to make research more resonant, long-lasting, and even fun. Research projects ranging from the traditional to the avant-garde instilled a deeper understanding of the events surrounding the tragic fire at Imperial Food in Hamlet, NC. Students began their research of North Carolina’s worst industrial disaster at UNC’s Davis Library under the guidance of Dramatic Arts Librarian Thomas Nixon. Mr. Nixon highlighted for students the Library’s impressive access to periodicals, databases, and an arsenal of internet tools to enhance their research papers that tackled topics from race relations to food processing regulations.
Next students were exposed the the audio library of the award winning Southern Oral History Project (SOHP) allowing them to listen to first hand accounts of a wide range of experiences of living in the South. Students selected SOHP transcriptions to cull into theatrical monologues to be performed during the courses’ final presentation. Local choreographer, Aya Shabu, offered a workshop in documentary dance that created a vocabulary of movement for students to physicalize their research and experience the monotony of factory work.
Ernest Grant, RN, Anita Fields, RN, and Pastor Shirley M. Massey from UNC’s Jaycee Burn Center were invited to share their experience treating burn victims and their families physically, mentally, and spiritually. The fact that these nurses treated victims from the Hamlet fire had a profound effect on the students’ understanding of this event. A field trip to Hamlet, NC allowed students to actually walk the site of the fire, pay their respects at the memorial, and experience the sights and sounds of this tiny town that had suffered so greatly. Once all the research and reflections were compiled, the class, Professor Kathy Williams, playwright Howard Croft, and I collaborated to present the results in theatrical form. Ultimately a script was written, rehearsed, and presented by the students as a stage reading on the last day of class to a very responsive audience. The effort of the expansive research will continue on by serving as a dramaturgical source for a new play by Mr. Howard Croft and directed by Kathy Williams during Kenan Theater Company’s 2016-17 Season at UNC Chapel Hill.