'Verbatim' Theatre: From interviews to performance

Session called by: Jessica Mordsley and Rebecca Gould, Tinderbox Alley

Participants included: Edd, Kate, Beth, Bec, Jess, Janet M., David Cotts, Hannah Sharkey, Melanie Grossenbacher

Why this session: We called this session because we are just starting a project called ‘Bulgakov Moments’ in association with the Royal College of Physicians for which we are interviewing doctors about their experiences of the first time they found themselves alone and wholly responsible for someone else's life or death. Ultimately we will transform these interviews and stories into performances. We wanted to hear from others who are interested in, or have experience of, verbatim theatre and other similar art forms.

What we discussed:
Bec gave an introduction to verbatim theatre. She spoke about David Hare, whose plays Permanent Way (about the railways) and Stuff Happens (about Iraq War) are based on interviews with real people. These are heavily curated and shaped. At the other end of the spectrum is the work at the Tricycle, e.g. Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, which is literally a re-presentation of exactly what was said.

Edd has written a play which won the Pomegranate Theatre New Writing Competition and will have a rehearsed reading soon. It's about Clay Cross, a coalmining town in Derbyshire which was one of the last places to hold out against the Tory government's orders to local councils to raise the cost of council house rent in the 70s/80s. Although not strictly verbatim theatre, it's heavily based on interviews, minutes of meetings, parliamentary minutes, etc. and so he feels a sense of responsibility towards those whose story he's telling. He's nervous about the reactions of those who were really there. He has created a fictional protagonist very closely based on a real councillor, and has changed the order in which things happened. Does this do a disservice to the truth?

We discussed to what extent you curate. It can never be an exact representation of reality - at least you have to select where you start and finish, and whose stories you choose to tell. David Hare - keep true to the spirit, but use your skills to make the story come across.

One participant spoke about an event called Livebait in Providence, New Jersey, where people's names are picked out of a hat and they have 5 mins to tell a story on a theme.

Does verbatim theatre always have a political motivation? Edd was motivated by the parallels between 1980s Tory government and what is happening today. The rise of verbatim theatre coincided with the rise of ‘spin’ - people were hungry for truth and authenticity, not trusting politicians or the media.

Also a way of hearing the voices of people who are not usuallly heard.

Is there an obligation to present a balanced view? To represent all views? Or should

you put across your own point of view? Subtly or not so subtly?

People want to know why you feel strongly about it, why you've chosen this subject, but without being shouted at. Need to allow the audience to formulate their own responses.

One exception to heavily political verbatim theatre is London Road, a musical based on the murders of women working as prostitutes in Ipswich. In this case the actors wore headsets so they could exactly represent the real speech. This exact mimicry made it more powerful, more like hearing their real voices.

As a director Rufus Norris and Leckie Blythe said it goes against what you usually do - trying to create a unique performance each night. Instead you're trying to get exactly the same performance each night, breathing, intonation, etc.

Does this mean it takes away from the actors' craft? It's a different sort of challenge. Unlike creating a character from a script, or playing around with words, you don't have that freedom. The lines and the character must be right.

At the end of London Road you hear an extract of the original interview and realise how accurate the imitation was. Similarly the actor playing Dianne Abbott in the play about the London Riots - the audience laughed because the imitation was so perfect.

What about the need to have someone who resembles the original speaker physically, same age, build, etc.? It makes a very different statement if you have someone who is obviously ‘wrong’ e.g. a man speaking a woman's words, this draws attention to the fact that it's not their own words. This could be a more Brechtian performance.

What about the fact that it is mostly political pieces preaching to the converted? You are not going to change a lifetime political position on the basis of one play. Perhaps the aim should be to open a conversation. There is a risk that by presenting people's views verbatim without comment, that you reinforce hateful political beliefs. e.g. BNP supporter thinking that Sing Your Heart Out for the Lads proved that he was right.

Sometimes it's an aside or a comment which slips out which is most revealing. Because it reflects or echoes something in ourselves that we're not comfortable with. Challenges your own concept of who you are. Especially if spoken by a sympathetic character.

There is always selection, except for e.g. ‘tribunal theatre’ where yesterday's cases were played out, verbatim, the next day. If it feels authentic, but is fictional, that can be the most misleading of all. You need to be honest with your audience about how truthful it is, as long as you don't play with people's heads (as long as you “know what you're seeing”) any degree of fictionalisation is ok.

You also need to be honest with your interviewees, to tell them what you can and would like to do with material, and to appreciate that you have a sense of responsibility with regard to other people's stories and words.


Theatre, political, nicholas kent, truth, authenticity, tribunal, tricycle, david hare, journalism, realism, verbatim, london road, documentary, interviews, stephen lawrence, theatre, Truth