This article was published by Lagniappe Magazine – May 4, 2023. VOL 41 NO 5.
Special Thanks to Brad Goins and Lagniappe Magazine for permission to publish this on our blog!
Dev Doc Theatre
A New Local Theatre Project Aims To Help People Tell Their Stories
By Brad Goins
In January, local theatre expert Charles McNeely and a small group of people created Dev Doc Theatre (which is short for Devised Documentary Theatre). McNeely says the project is “an effort to bring understanding to things that are misunderstood.”
The “small group” that is the driving force behind the overall project started with McNeely and a McNeese computer science major. “We now have 15 people in our Dev Doc community who are providing their skills and insights to help Dev Doc grow and reach the people who need to know that we are here.” McNeely’s two daughters are among those involved.
McNeely is “inviting people to send in their videos, voiceovers or written words to tell their stories and speak their truths about any topic or experience in their life.” Contributions will exist in the forms of videos and transcripts. Eventually, all contributions will be available to the public in both forms. Future plans include translation of videos into other languages so audiences outside of the U.S. can be reached.
“It’s our hope that by doing this, [the contributors] will help us understand a part of this world that may be misunderstood.” This approach is “extremely powerful because we’re getting information about a topic or experience from someone who is living it, or has lived through it.” The group will “support people who have something to say.”
“We hope that the person submitting their story will connect with others who are going through the same thing, and help everyone involved understand that they are not alone.”
The group will encourage each participant to tell “your truth, your story.” The process, McNeely says, will “empower people.”
“We hope that theatre groups from around the world will see us as a resource: a library of material from which [they can draw] to create documentary theatre.”
To date, Dev Doc Theatre has focused on a couple of big themes. One of these is autism and Asperger’s. It’s hoped that people who are on the spectrum or their caregivers who read or watch Dev Doc Theatre materials will “no longer feel alone.”
The theatre project has also worked with teenagers and guided them as they created vignettes or worked on collaborations related to teenage life. Participants are asked: If someone was putting together a play about a teenager, “what is the one thing from your life” you would want to be in the play?
These works about teenage experience were all about particular topics — “there was a focal point,” says McNeely. The works that were produced “are not traditional scripts that lay out every word the participants will say.” Once the focal point is settled, there is bound to be a fair amount of improvisation in performances and presentations by the participants.
The first big project created by the teenage participants in 2019 included “quite a few light moments,” says McNeely. But a theatre project assembled in 2022 — after COVID and the hurricanes — was, says McNeely, “pretty raw; more intense, dramatic.”
Works the participants produced include one titled “I Am Not My Body.” In another work that centered on racial identity, the participant asked, “Am I Too White? Am I too Black?” The group has also received commentary from a student who was homeless; a bartender who wanted to explain his job to others; and a funeral director who wanted to do the same.
McNeely envisions having participants address additional topics in the future. In the “next year or two,” he hopes to put forward the question of how various cultures approach raising teenagers. He would also like to eventually get comments from students coming from different cultures to go to college here. Others proposed topics include what parents and parenting should be like and what spouses should be like.
The products of the project will continue to be made up of the commentary of the participants. These products will not be organized into conventional plays. “We’re not going to be doing any productions,” McNeely says.
The Dev Doc Theatre has been influenced by the devised documentary “The Laramie Project,” as well as “The Vagina Monologues.” Works such as these are not plays that are finished and then published in a book in a complete form. For instance, McNeely notes, after Hurricane Katrina, several monologues were added to The Vagina Monologues in order to relate the experiences of women in beleaguered New Orleans. “I love the idea of an evolving script.”
‘Everyone Has A Story’
“Everyone has a story,” says McNeely. “Everyone has some part of their life that is not understood” by others. “I want to give everybody a platform.”
Taken together, the stories will make up a library where anyone can read.
McNeely sees his project as being made up of these essential components:
1. A library: The stories themselves.
2. A garden: A place where participants “plant their truths.”
3. A classroom: A place where participants teach people.
4. A health unit: A safe, healthy place that provides a home for participants.
There are already a number of ways of finding out about or participating in the group. It is making use of a website (devdoctheatre.org), a YouTube channel (“Dev Doc Theatre“), Instagram and Facebook pages (“devdoctheatre”). You can send a message to McNeely at email@example.com.
Part of McNeely’s motivation for hearing others’ stories is that he enjoys reading history and has “a devotion to history.” He says, “I want to preserve people’s stories.”
Go back far enough in McNeely’s life and you’ll come to a time when he hadn’t yet been bitten by the theatre bug. He grew up working on a farm and spent lots of time in duck blinds, much of it talking with his father.
He enjoyed this sort of life and had originally hoped to carry these interests over into a business run by himself and his father. In the shop they envisioned, they would had sold primarily hunting guns and hunting dogs, specifically retrievers.
But it wasn’t to be. McNeely’s long career in theatre started when he appeared in a production of Macbeth 34 years ago and was so taken with the experience that he decided to devote his life to the stage. But this decision wasn’t entirely a surprise development. He’d started taking acting lessons in 1983.
He got a bachelor’s at McNeese State University and went on to attend graduate school at the University of New Orleans. After graduation, he taught theater for four years in St. Charles Parish.
He then taught theatre at McNeese from 1995 to 2022. In the period 2013 through 2018, McNeese theatre instruction was literally a one-man show, and the man was McNeely. (And this is one of those cases in which the word “literally” is being used correctly.) He was the only professor teaching theatre at the school. He had one assistant and that was it. The result was a large number of long work days and frequent periods of separation from his family. He left McNeese specifically to get more family time.
Still, McNeely seems quite satisfied with his theatre experience. “I’ve been very lucky. Very blessed.”
He says he now knocks off work at 4:30 pm every day so he can be free when his wife, a social worker, gets home from her job. “My family is the most important thing. I missed some stuff” while putting in the long hours necessary for theatre rehearsals.
McNeely says the help he’s gotten in his big new project also comes from outside of the basic group of 15. He notes, in particular, assistance from Randy Partin from Little Theatre and says Brook Hanemann from Banners has been “a huge help.”
“Because of the help I received, I made it.”