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“Let’s put on a show!” – Oral History Performance & Journalism

This guest blog post was written by SOHP’s faculty affiliate Dr. Barbara Friedman, Associate Professor in the UNC School of Media and Journalism

“Let’s put on a show!” No kidding—that was the response of my students when I (timidly) proposed adding a performance component to NewStories, an oral history course I teach in the School of Media and Journalism.

I knew students who had participated in oral history performances and the benefits were clear. Students were connecting with history in a deeply personal way, noticing thematic overlaps in their narrators’ experiences, and bringing their stories to life for an audience outside the archives.

J490 students SP15

Students in the Spring 2015 “NewStories” class

We turned our attention to performance only after the students immersed themselves in the principles and practices of oral history and its uses by journalists and media historians. I relied heavily on Della Pollock’s account of performing “Like a Family,” and her edited collection, Remembering: Oral History Performance. It certainly helped that one of my nine students was a reporter for Carolina Week, a student-produced news broadcast, and a dramatic arts minor with acting experience, and that two others were broadcast communication majors with training in scriptwriting and public speaking.

Evan Faulkenbury, a doctoral candidate in history and SOHP field scholar, helped the students tease out the themes of their interviews, complicated by the fact that their narrators ranged widely in age (43 to 87) and hailed from all facets of the media industry (think CNN and a country weekly). They settled on two themes and divided into groups to begin writing a script, using excerpts from their interviews to convey the ways that their narrators had met personal and professional challenges.

Program J490

“NewStories” Event Program

Each student was expected to contribute equally to the conceptualization of the performance, its content and organization. They worked in and out of class in their groups, then collaborated on a Google document to compose a script. I had access to the Google doc as well, so that I could provide feedback along the way and gauge individual contributions. The final version included gems like this, from an octogenarian community newspaper reporter (still working): “Plain old folks. Normal people. If they do something interesting, I try to find out and I write about it in simple language. … Folksy, not fancy.” And this bit of advice from a former copy editor: “Develop a life list–like bird watchers do of all the birds they have seen—of all the words you have trouble with.”

After many rehearsals and reserving space for the performance (fittingly, the Halls of Fame room in Carroll Hall), the students sent personalized invitations to their narrators. In addition, they invited faculty, staff, parents and friends to attend. They designed a program with a brief description of the course and the names of the performers and interviewees. We dedicated 90 minutes to the entire event, allowing 30 minutes for the performance and time before and after for informal conversation. We had a few glitches, but nothing major.

Victoria Karagiorgis, UNC junior, and interviewee Valarie Lauder, first “copygirl" at the Chicago Daily News

Victoria Karagiorgis, UNC junior, and interviewee Valarie Lauder, first “copygirl” at the Chicago Daily News

One of the narrators in attendance, a former editor of the Greensboro News & Record who presided over mass layoffs there, said that the interview encouraged him to revisit that difficult period and consider its long-term impact on himself and others. Another narrator remarked that regardless of the period in which they worked, all of the interviewees had described challenges posed by the introduction of new technology.

The students had reached a similar conclusion in the process of preparing their performance: that the kinds of challenges faced by modern-day practitioners–labor issues, social changes, competition, automation–are not so different from what earlier generations confronted. They articulated that connection to the audience: “Our stories now join with yours. Your experiences inform our work and the kind of legacy we want to create.”  

Next spring, I’ll be the first to say, “Let’s put on a show!”