Reality Collides with the Western Literary Canon in Fiction in the Real: The Docufiction Theatre of TTD and HoD

October 6, 2021 by Cherry Zhang

On October 9 and 10, 2021, the Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies (CDTPS) will present two virtual staged readings of original student plays. Fiction in the Real: The Docufiction Theatre of TTD and HoD is jointly created by Yizhou Zhang (University of Toronto) and Siting Yang (Columbia University), combining documentary material with reinterpretations of the Western literary canon, truth with fiction, to tell their stories.

TTD (writer and director: Yizhou Zhang; dramaturg: Siting Yang) is based on The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, a German novel about World War II. Inspired by Yizhou’s time living in Beijing and her friends there, TTD is about the state of exception in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region but not intended to be reflective of the Uyghur experience. The novel, therefore, acts as a mediator between her voice and the true stories. “I can only tell these stories indirectly through mediation,” Yizhou commented. “This mediation is made transparent and apparent to the audience.”

Similarly, HoD (writer: Siting Yang; director: Rakesh Palisetty; dramaturgs: Yizhou Zhang, Zhe Pan, Liv Rigdon) is inspired by a friend’s experience working in West Africa, which resonated with Siting and reminded her of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. However, she also emphasized that neither set out to choose a relevant text; instead; their plays are what make the texts relevant. “We open up this text and see the text itself as a kind of battleground,” she added. “And we let the different relations of our current situation fight on the ground of the text.”

Both artists highlight the positioning of truth in their stories. Yizhou says it was important for them to separate themselves from objective reality. “There’s a pressure for artists to lay claim over truth or reality in order to prove their legitimacy,” she says. “We do not claim that we represent reality. We try to process our experiences and observations of the real world into a collection of theatrical experiences where multiple levels of reality and voices are at play. We are aware of the ongoing construction and deconstruction of ‘reality,’ and we try to show it.” This is what they do in their use of docufiction theatre, fusing field studies, interviews, oral history, and personal experiences to present ‘fiction in the real.’

Although both plays will be screened digitally at the upcoming event, the hope is for eventual in-person presentations. TTD was originally developed as a staged production for 2020, before the production was postponed due to the pandemic. It is now planned for an in-person show in 2022, while HoD is looking at an in-person performance in New York this winter. Both artists see this virtual workshop as an opportunity to receive feedback and improve the plays for their final staged form.

It is also significant that the two plays are being presented side-by-side. Although they weren’t intentionally developed together, they do speak to each other on a deeper level. While they might be billed as political dramas or critiques, Siting believes the reality is much more intimate. “If you connect the two plays together, you find something larger,” says Siting. “On the one hand they are about how they deal with ordinary life and ordinary human struggles, and on the other, they are about the creative method. So, there’s a kind of vulnerable and nuanced part to these two plays that appear to be really strong and political.” While the plays are underscored by larger themes of social issues, at the heart is the ordinary person’s moral response to complicated power relations.

To learn more about both shows and register for the screenings on October 9 (TTD) and 10 (HoD), visit: