Words Are Louder Than Actions

All aspects of culture have their trends – art, music, architecture and so on – and theatre is no different. Current trends in theatre seem to be that of the immersive performance but also that of verbatim theatre (VT), which appears to be very popular at the moment across the globe. Essentially VT is a form of documentary theatre in which plays are created/written from the precise words spoken by people interviewed about a particular event or topic.

Perhaps one of the most famous pieces of VT is The Laramie Project which is a play by the Tectonic Theater Project about the reaction to the 1998 murder of a gay student in Laramie, Wyoming, in the US. The murder was denounced as a hate crime and brought attention to the lack of hate crimes laws in various US states. The play draws on hundreds of interviews conducted by the theatre company with inhabitants of the town, company members’ own journal entries, and published news reports. Arguably it is one of the most performed plays in The States. The company have just followed up the original with a new work called The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later which returns to Laramie to see how attitudes have changed in the intervening years.

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There is a sense that VT is something new, but this is in fact mistaken. This kind of theatre has been around since the early 20th Century, one of the pioneers being Erwin Piscator and his living newspapers. In Drama Online Dr Tom Cantrell, Lecturer in Drama, University of York, gives a great outline and history of VT

Verbatim theatre is a form of documentary theatre which is based on the spoken words of real people. In its strictest form, verbatim theatre-makers use real people’s words exclusively, and take this testimony from recorded interviews. However, the form is more malleable than this, and writers have frequently combined interview material with invented scenes, or used reported and remembered speech rather than recorded testimony. There is an overlap between verbatim theatre and documentary theatre, and other kinds of fact-based drama, such as testimonial theatre (in which an individual works with a writer to tell their own story) and tribunal theatre (edited from court transcripts). In the United Kingdom, the term ‘verbatim’ specifically relates to the use of spoken testimony, whereas ‘documentary’ encompasses other found sources, such as newspaper articles, diaries and letters. However, in America ‘verbatim’ is not used, with ‘documentary’ being the preferred term. When looking for verbatim playtexts, the reader will often find them conflated with other documentary forms.

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Documentary theatre has a rich heritage in comparison to the relative infancy of verbatim theatre. Erwin Piscator’s Trotz alledem! (In Spite of Everything! Berlin, 1925) is widely acknowledged as the first stage documentary. The play was a revue about the Communist Party and Piscator utilised new technologies which included creating montages using projected newsreel footage. Trotz alledem!also featured recorded speeches, news-extracts, photographs and film sequences from the First World War. Piscator went on to direct some of the most respected German documentary plays such as Rolf Hochhuth’s Der Stellvertreter (The Representative, known in America as The Deputy), which premiered in West Berlin in 1963, Heinar Kipphardt’s In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1964), and Peter Weiss’s The Investigation (1965). These German documentary productions had a great influence on British documentary theatre, particularly the work of Joan Littlewood. Her production, Oh What a Lovely War! chronicled the First World War through songs and documents of the period. Its importance was immediately recognised, with the production hailed by the Observer as ‘The most important theatrical event of the decade’.

The development of verbatim theatre, rather like Piscator’s use of new film projection technologies, is closely linked to a simple technological development – the invention of the portable cassette recorder. This enabled the voices of individuals to be recorded in their own environment. Mobile interviews could take place which extended the dramatic possibilities of verbatim theatre. The first verbatim productions were directed by Peter Cheeseman who was artistic director of the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent from 1962 – 1984. Cheeseman’s verbatim work at Stoke was not only influenced by the left-wing documentary theatre of Joan Littlewood, but also by the radio documentary tradition, particularly the radio ballads of Charles Parker. Central to Parker’s work was the prominence of working class voices in the broadcasts. One of Cheeseman’s most notable productions, which can be regarded the first verbatim play, was Fight for Shelton Bar (1974), which was part of a campaign fighting against the closure of a major steelworks in the heart of Stoke, and was performed in the city to an audience of many of the ex-workers.

Over the past two decades verbatim theatre has come to occupy a central place on the British stage, and is seen as one of the most incisive forms of political theatre. It has moved from the fringes to the mainstream, with some of the highest profile theatres staging verbatim plays. Particularly noteworthy exponents of the form include David Hare, whose verbatim (or at least part-verbatim) plays The Permanent Way (2003), Stuff Happens (2004) andThe Power of Yes (2009) were all performed at the National Theatre; director Max Stafford-Clark and writer Robin Soans, who have collaborated on A State Affair (2000), Talking to Terrorists (2005) andMixed Up North (2009); and in particular the campaigning work of director Nicholas Kent and theGuardian journalist Richard Norton Taylor at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, North London. Kent and Norton-Taylor’s work has included a series of tribunal plays, including Nuremberg (1996), Bloody Sunday (2005), and perhaps their most successful production: The Colour of Justice: The Stephen Lawrence Enquiry (1999). All these were edited scenes from court cases. Kent has also collaborated with Gillian Slovo on Guantanamo: ‘Honour Bound to Defend Freedom’ (with Victoria Brittain, 2004) and most recently on The Riots (2011), which was the first theatrical response to the riots in the summer of 2011.

Verbatim theatre has arisen as the medium chosen to depict major societal issues. For example, army deaths in Philip Ralph’s Deep Cut (2008) and Fiona Evans’s Geoff Dead: Disco for Sale (2008); prostitution in Esther Wilson’s Unprotected (2006), Alecky Blythe’s The Girlfriend Experience (2008); murder in Tanika Gupta’s Gladiator Games (2005) and London Road (2012) and perhaps most predominantly, a surge of work on the continuing issue of the war in Iraq: Norton-Taylor’s Justifying War (2003), Called to Account (2007) and Tactical Questioning (2011), Gregory Burke’s Black Watch(2007) and Steve Gilroy’s The Motherland (2008).

Verbatim theatre has also proliferated internationally. Interested readers should explore American plays such as Moises Kaufman’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde (1997) and in particularThe Laramie Project (2000) and The Laramie Project Ten Years Later (2009). Anna Deavere Smith is also one of the most high profile documentary makers. Her work includes Building Bridges, Not Walls(1985) and Fires in the Mirror (1992). Similarly important is Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s celebrated play The Exonerated (2002), composed of interviews with individuals who have been released from death row. Australia has also experienced a boom in verbatim productions. The first verbatim production was Paul Brown’sAftershocks (1993), featuring interviews in the aftermath of the devastating Newcastle earthquake. Works by Alana Valentine including Run Rabbit Run(2004) and Parramatta Girls (2007) have also raised the profile of Australian verbatim theatre.

VT should be powerful and is obviously all about theatre that provokes, informs and seeks social and cultural change. Michael Billington wrote an article for The Guardian that also talks about its current popularity and you can read that here.

In an article for ideastap, playwright Alecky Blythe outlines her process:

I start with either an interesting event, or interesting character. That might be a story that I read in the paper or it might be an ongoing story, like women bishops. Then I’ll take myself off to interview people in a very journalistic way.

You have to be quite upfront from the beginning. Even if you don’t know where your project will end up – if it’ll even get used – you need to let people know that you’re going to record them and that an actor might portray them on stage. And you have to get their permission to do that.

Some people have said ‘no’. You have to judge if that really is a ‘no’ or if you just haven’t explained yourself properly. If it’s a matter of them being identifiable, I will go into how I can make them anonymous….

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Some people have both [of the] things you’re looking for: interesting characters and the potential to be developed narratively. Some people are brilliant, likeable and accessible straight away, but they might not have much forward story; all their best stories have already happened to them. The best verbatim theatre is as much present tense as possible – it’s about capturing things as they happen.

Of course you’re looking for emotional effect, but at other points in the story you’ll be looking for plot and facts, which means asking slightly dry questions – where they are, what they’re doing, who they’re waiting for etc. Those things are key to the highs and lows of the story.

Legally I don’t know whether it’s different to journalism. If someone says something that is highly contentious, as I am finalising the edit I’ll also go over exactly what they said with them. I want to check they remember, in case it could lead to any kind of back lash for them, and that they are ok with that. Some people say things in the heat of the moment that they might forget; sometimes the show is produced at least a year after they said it.

I don’t transcribe anything. I make a first edit, and of that edit I’ll log the timecode and who said what. That means that further down the line I can pick up specific moments – someone talking about sunglasses, for instance – by reading back through my notes rather than listening to 15 hours of recording.

I don’t write any lines; I give the actors the audio recordings. Although on the first day of rehearsal they get a running order; the names of the characters, titles of the tracks and who’s playing what part…..

…One of the strengths of verbatim is the sort of rich text you just couldn’t make up. So if you’re doing a verbatim play, put some of those quotes on the flyer or poster. It can just be a tiny soundbite.

I’ve always gone out and followed stories before anybody’s put any money on the table. That’s still the case. Even if a company says they want to work with you, by the time the paperwork’s gone through and the contract is signed, you might have missed a month’s worth of collecting material. Sometimes you are living on a breadline and taking gambles. But luckily my process isn’t too expensive – apart from the initial cost of a dictaphone, it’s just batteries and travel.

The popularity of VT is wide and I share two examples here that give you an idea about its power – Home, about life in a hostel for young homeless people in London and My Name is Rachel Corrie a play based on the diaries and emails of Rachel Corrie, an American student who was killed while protesting against the destruction of a house by the Israeli Defence Force in the Gaza Strip in 2003.

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I should say (and proudly) that Shannon Murphy is an ex student of mine.

And finally a great article from Australian Writers Guild Magazine, by playwright Alana Valentine titled The tune of the spoken voice.

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